Sunday, 23 May 2010

Older people and local social networks Last week I went along to talk to a review group working on elder care for the Centre for Social Justice. They wanted my views on how neighbourhood support can be strengthened, and why it should be, to help older people to age in place. I put some stress on the unrealised potential of new technologies: not so much from the familiar applications like telecare, but more from the point of view of local social networks. It's remarkable how little attention has been paid to the contribution of social media in strengthening and sustaining local connections and thus supporting older people in their neighbourhoods. Here's an example. Independent Age have just published a report on Older people, technology and community, with the totally misleading subtitle 'the potential of technology to help older people renew or develop social contacts and to actively engage in their communities.' Unfortunately most of the report is about already-well-known barriers to and uses of technology, not about the development of social connections, although there are revelations for me among the case studies. A main theme for the report is: Increasing awareness in the public sector of the issue of social isolation and loneliness and encouraging public sector organisations to make adaptations to technology-based services that will help address the problem. This is all very well but it risks over-emphasising the negative, misses the potential for older people to play interdependent roles, and completely overlooks the opportunity of local citizen-based online resources. How come this lack of awareness persists? Three years ago Danny Bull, who set up MyNeighbourhoods told me: ‘Our senior citizens have been integral to our growth, fuelled by the possibility of real-world communication as a result of initiating contact with others online. We’ve witnessed everything from elderly users trading books locally to a bit of light hearted flirting.’ (I published the comment here in 2008) The potential has always been there but I'm beginning to suspect that much of the problem lies with the age agencies and the attitudes of professionals. Understandably perhaps, they seem too often preoccupied with technical barriers that diminish the quality of life of older people. The more you have to deal with those problems I suppose, the more you are going to look at them in mechanistic ways, rather than recognising organic social solutions. (As an aside, there's also a need to differentiate the important range of skills and experience represented by the term 'older people', even though there's been plenty of discussion about how the younger old can support the older old). Neighbours are seldom recognised as part of the solution to older people's care needs (so all credit to the CSJ for their awareness): and as this report shows, people can reflect extensively on technological applications without seeing the potential to stimulate neighbourly support. Then again, I may be wrong and very little online-enabled neighbourhood support is actually going on. But that's not the impression I've been getting.

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