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Information and communication technology is a promising way to reduce social isolation of older adults

Chen RY-R, Schulz PJ. The effect of information communication technology interventions on reducing social isolation in the elderly: A systematic review Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2016;18:e18.

Review question

Does information and communication technology (such as phone- and Internet-based programs) help reduce social isolation among older adults?

Background

Risk of social isolation (reduced contact with others) increases with age. Social isolation affects both mental and physical health and can lead to depression, self-harm or self-neglect and even increased risk of death. As the world’s population ages, there is an increasing need to identify effective ways to increase social interaction and reduce isolation among older adults. Technology has the potential to help older adults at risk of social isolation (e.g. living alone and/or less mobile) by connecting them with others, including family, friends and other communities.

How the review was done

This is a systematic review of 25 studies, including 6 randomized controlled trials.

  • The number of participants in each study varied greatly. The smallest study had 8 participants and the largest had 5203.
  • All studies included older adults (over age 55). Average age of participants in the studies ranged from 66 to 83 years.
  • The studies took place in 12 different countries and included people of differing income, education, health status, living arrangements and nationality. 
  • All participants used some type of information and/or communication technology (ICT) to connect with others. Most included some type of Internet or web-based application (app) such as email, chat rooms or videoconference.
  • Researchers measured changes in social isolation or other measures of isolation such as loneliness, number of confidants or social contacts and social support.

What the researchers found

Information and communication technology (ICT) significantly improves measures of social isolation, including social contacts, social support, social connectedness and social networks in the short term (less than 6 months).  Fifteen of 18 studies found that ICT significantly reduced loneliness among older adults.

ICT may not be right for everyone. Not all approaches were beneficial for all older adults and a relatively high rate of participants dropped out of the trials. The type of ICT approach may be an important factor; some approaches risked increasing social isolation (for example, non-reciprocal or one-way communication).

Rapid changes in the types, functions and availability of ICT, as well of a lack of clarity about who might benefit most from different ICT approaches points to a growing need for research in this area.

Conclusion

Information and communication technology is a promising way to reduce social isolation and loneliness among older adults.

 




Glossary

Randomized controlled trials
Studies where people are assigned to one of the treatments purely by chance.
Systematic review
A comprehensive evaluation of the available research evidence on a particular topic.

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