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April 17, 2020

Doug Hamilton-Evans
Research & Communications Coordinator, SFU Public Square

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University or SFU Public Square, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

SFU’s STAR Institute is connecting people at a time of disconnection.

Physical distancing due to COVID-19 is a challenge, but most of us are fortunate to be able to turn to technology to work, connect, shop and get help.

But many older adults – who are already more likely to experience isolation and its toll on physical, mental and social wellbeing – may not have the access and skills we take for granted.

To respond, SFU’s Science and Technology for Aging Seniors (STAR) Institute began compiling technology resources to help their community partners support seniors and caregivers. The tools range from guides on how to use Skype, to ways to shop for groceries online.

It’s one small example of the importance of responsive, community-driven research projects, says Andrew Sixsmith, the director of the STAR Institute and a professor in SFU’s Department of Gerontology.

The STAR Institute had been working with Seniors 411, as well as the United Way and local seniors’ groups, for the last year on supporting seniors with technology.

“But their priorities changed overnight as they went from meeting physically in their Centre to trying to do things remotely – which is a particular problem for isolated and vulnerable seniors,” says Sixsmith.

The STAR Institute’s work illustrates that you may be surprised at a community’s priorities when you ask them what they need rather than assuming.

“When we think of older people, we think of cognitive and mental health, but the financial impacts of COVID-19 can be quite serious for them,” Sixsmith says. “The first big panic was around how to help people fill in their tax forms.”

Sixsmith says the project was built on the strengths of academic research, mobilizing existing knowledge and local, national and international networks to provide useful and immediate information to communities based on their needs. 

Unlike most academic projects, no new research was developed for this.

“The COVID-19 situation has made us really listen to what the community wants and to disseminate solutions and best practices that already exist,” says Sixsmith. 

The next step in the project is to take on input from community partners to identify gaps and ways to make an even deeper impact.

Supporting Seniors with Technology

Sixsmith acknowledges the chicken-and-egg conundrum when most resources to support seniors’ use of technology are hosted online, but he pushes back against the notion that older people are often unfamiliar or adverse to technology.

“What we are seeing is that in the face of adversity, many seniors and community organizations are embracing technology-based communication tools like smart phones and social media, often for the first time,” says Sixsmith.

“It actually runs counter to the stereotype that older people are technophobic and unable to adapt to change.”

It remains important to note that many older adults may not have equitable access to technology due to lack of income, education or other barriers, and that many technologies are not designed with them in mind.

Sixsmith says that the key issue is reaching out to support those who are most isolated and vulnerable.

Along with research on the use of robotics and AI to support elders, Sixsmith says it’s crucial to “mobilize the technology of everyday life.”

Dr. Sixsmith is also scientific co-director of AGE-WELL, Canada’s Technology and Aging Network.

Further reading

COVID-19 Resources for Seniors from the STAR Institute

Key Issues in Aging in the 21st Century by the STAR Institute 

More from Voices in the Square

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