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Exploring ways older adults can stay online

Dr. Wendy Young (l) and Don Cochrane at the recent Sus-IT Canada Symposium.


By Emilie Bourque Whittle

Many older adults these days are thoroughly engaged with technology, especially the Internet. What happens, then, when individuals who once used the web for health information or keeping in touch are challenged by pain or limited mobility?

Unfortunately, it sometimes means they become disengaged with technology. But, there are solutions to these problems that Memorial is shining a spotlight on.

On May 10, the first Sus-IT Canada Symposium was held at Memorial's School of Nursing, with organizational support from the Newfoundland and Labrador Center for Applied Health Research (NLCAHR) and funding by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). It brought together experts in this new field, people from government and community organizations, academics and older adults themselves.

"The purpose of the symposium was really to inform us about recruitment, about what sustainable solutions we should be trying out, what we should be measuring and also to inform us about the ethics of the plausible solutions," said Memorial's Dr. Wendy Young, Canada Research Chair on Healthy Aging.

The project behind the symposium began when two investigators at Loughborough University in the U.K., Professor Leela Damodaran and Wendy Olphert, began looking at the intersection between aging and technology use.

Ms. Olphert had a father who, as a result of macular degeneration, became disengaged with the technology that he once used frequently. Ms. Olphert, who has a background in information technology, was motivated to help.

Once this topic became major news in the U.K., a call for grant applications was funded by the U.K.'s New Dynamics of Ageing. Across the pond in Canada, CIHR piggybacked on this project and issued its own proposal call.

"In our proposal, we broke our research out into three phases," said Dr. Young. "The first phase was identifying who we wanted to help, the second was the symposium itself — bringing together experts to give us advice on phase three, which will be finding solutions to help."

The day-long symposium brought together 15 presenters on a wide variety of topics. One of them was 79-year-old Don Cochrane who shared findings from a project called Internet for Seniors. One symposium attendee, Dr. Kerry Byrne, said not only did Mr. Cochrane keep them all laughing throughout the symposium, "he has an incredible wealth of knowledge about older adults' computer use and I felt lucky to have the chance to learn from his expertise."

At Memorial, many different types of projects are informing new research in this field. Liz Wallack, symposium organizer and grad student in community health, is adding to that body of knowledge.

"My work is with family caregivers of people with dementia in rural Newfoundland, and using Skype to connect them with the Alzheimer Society and the educational services that they provide," she said.

"It seems to me that use of technology is really a strength of Memorial," said Dr. Young. "Dr. A.M. House was a pioneer in Tele-health and, given the geography and given the history, Memorial has been a leader. With the Canada Research Chair in Healthy Aging and graduate students like Liz, I think there are wonderful opportunities."