Reconnecting the disconnected: MSU researchers work to combat social isolation and loneliness in older adults while bridging the gap in the digital divide

December 21, 2022 - Brandon Drain

Paul FreddolinoDrs. Paul Freddolino (PI) and Fei Sun (Co-I), together with doctoral student Ha Neul Kim, MSW student Megan Bentley and BASW student, Marie Huber, from the MSU School of Social Work, have received a grant of $96,994.00 from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund. The project entitled, “Supporting Older Adult Literacy and Health Equity,” will be conducted in collaboration with the Otsego County Commission on Aging (OCCOA).

Throughout the United States, there are older adults living alone, at risk of social isolation and emotional loneliness. One such group are recipients of home-delivered-meals, often delivered by Meals-on-Wheels programs operated by local community agencies. In the U.S., approximately 800,000 older adults receive these meals. Although research has shown that information and communication technologies (ICTs), like email and videoconferencing, can help reduce isolation and loneliness, older adults as a group have a lower rate of adoption of these tools than other age groups.This is the situation targeted by an innovative model developed by Dr. Paul Freddolino and his team to mitigate isolation and loneliness in older adults, while also increasing their overall usage and literacy in ICTs.

This study plans to build upon the success of a pilot study, and aims to, “…improve all of the resources that we have developed so we can launch a bigger project in more communities and really test the model,” said Freddolino.

“The ultimate goal is to reach older adults who are hard to reach – minority groups, the less educated, as well as those in rural areas -- and offer them digital skills,” said Freddolino.  “That’s the thing that’s driving us.”

This project builds upon a successful pilot project with OCCOA called Virtual Table, where isolated older adults who received home-delivered meals were approached by the driver who delivered their meals; drivers asked if they would be interested in learning about ICTs in a project with MSU. The drivers were people they knew and trusted, and this appeared to overcome their resistance. Participants received peer tutoring in ICTs and also in telehealth. Twenty-five older adults signed up for the project, and 20 completed it. Results were positive; the number of ICTs used and the frequency of their use increased, particularly the use of videoconferencing. This set participants up to connect with family and friends, and to be active participants in telehealth.

Virtual Table’s participants also added an unexpected dimension to the mix. After learning more about ICT and increasing their skill sets, participants wanted to immediately put those newfound skills into action and expand their social networks.

“From our participants, we got the request to link them with each other,” said Freddolino. “So, we started to have a get-together every other month on Zoom. We did a collective call and were able to provide them with a light meal, something to drink and dessert… [the idea] was fascinating because it came from them -- that was the fun part.”

 Looking Forward: Virtual Tables II and III

The new project also aims at testing the inverse of their previous method by introducing participants to the telehealth portion first.

“What we want to explore is teaching people about telehealth first,” said Freddolino. “Then, after they see the usefulness of technology tools, we hope they will want to learn more about information and communication technologies.”

This value proposition strategy may help to further alleviate the hesitation and fears older adults have towards ICTs by showing them the intrinsic value and the possibilities they offer.