Last week I went to interview an older man for a project about technology-enabled social care. We chatted for ages. Not much of it was relevant to my commission, but that was fine, I got enough footage for the project, and I was happy to talk. The gentleman had some fascinating stories to tell. One of those stories was about how his adopted son in Australia had bought him an iPad which he uses to “have a long natter” with him, over Skype, twice a week. He has been doing for years, originally using the “Friends and Family” discount option on the telephone, then via Skype on a laptop and now on his iPad. He was explicit that these interactions enhance his life. He also said that the technology-enabled care platform his carers use has made his life better because it means that carers who visit him have to stay for the full-allotted time, and that means they are more likely to chat with him.
I am becoming more and more convinced that technology-enabled nattering is the way to introduce older people to the benefits of new technologies. Many older people love to chat, but don’t have the opportunity to do so often enough. They love to chat, but they don’t love to type. Video conferencing is the way forward.
Yesterday I happened to catch a bit of a Sport Relief TV programme. There were lots of “fun” activities interspersed with sections on what the money Sport Relief raises is spent on. These sections were accompanied by inspirational music and language designed to pull at the heart strings.
Then a bit later I watched a YouTube video about the history of one of my favourite rock bands. I enjoyed the video, except for the bit about how they structured their activities to avoid paying tax in the UK. This was presented as a wholly acceptable and desirable thing to do. They were perfectly open about it.
For me this strikes at the heart of a key issue in our society. Every day people are doing fantastic, inspirational, and life-saving and enhancing things funded by tax-payers’ money. And yet, our society is happy to be moved and inspired by what Sport Relief, Comic Relief, the National Lottery, and other charitable fund-raisers do, while denigrating public services and resenting the tax monies that go to pay for them. No matter how much you might think you are an entrepreneur who doesn’t rely on the state; every time you use a publicly-funded road, have your bins emptied by the local authority, or rely on the NHS, you are using tax-funded services.
This is why I do things like the Civic Story Factory. The people who work in our public services are every bit as essential and inspirational as those funded by charitable telethons. They just don’t shout about it often enough.
Here’s an example of people doing some great work in our much derided Social Care sector. Homecare providers in Bradford.
In the last few years when I have talked to some people about my work getting older people to access the benefits of being online, a number of them have told me that older citizens do not take to social media. This may be true, in some cases, although I have seen quite a few examples of grandparents linking with their families through Facebook and WhatsApp. It could well be that fewer members of the older generation want to type or tap messages that do their younger counterparts, but there is something that many want to do more of, and that is talk. Could it be that the thing that makes social media attractive to time-poor younger generations, the ability to exchange messages very quickly and frequently, is the thing that puts off older citizens as they want deeper, more meaningful interactions.
Now, I know I am making a lot of sweeping generalisations here, but please bear with me. The other day someone was telling me about their mother who had been complaining to them that their father had discovered Skype. She complained that he spent every evening talking “rubbish” loudly to his two sisters in different parts of the country while she tried to watch television in the next room. At Digital Tea Parties and Connected Christmas events I have often found that Skype (or other video conferencing apps) are popular, partly because they don’t involve people with potentially arthritic fingers having to type, but also because they can be seen as a direct extension of the kinds of interaction people are used to having with those around them every day.
I have long railed against the idea that older people need to be taught to use utilitarian software of the kind that is common in offices. But maybe we need to go further and explore in-depth what more use of video conferencing can do. If people are at home and lonely, why can we not make use of “always on” video and audio connections to ensure they always have someone to talk to?
Which also brings me to the idea of “Serendipity Screens”. A couple of years ago now I heard a radio programme during which the manager of a chain of theatres in the United States talked about how they had interactive screens in the bars connected to each other. The idea was to get people talking to others in a different theatre, who were likely to be watching a completely different production, about their experiences and impressions of what they were seeing. I think this is a brilliant idea to get people who would otherwise not have a connection with each other talking and cross-fertilising ideas.
So, I am looking for partners and funding to explore how we can make more use of video conferencing to connect older people together. And to install “Serendipity Screens” in places like Day Centres and Sheltered Accommodation to get people talking to each other across geographical and cultural divides.
This is a piece of work I did a little while ago working with Locorum, a West Yorkshire-based social enterprise which exists to help health and care services adapt to the needs of under-represented groups. Locorum were commissioned by Calderdale Clinical Commissioning Group to undertake a survey of care needs among older Asian people and then to take the results of the survey and interview people about its findings.
Comments we received about this confirmed my views about the importance of this kind of storytelling. There were a couple of interesting points that came out in discussion about it.
Firstly, the video brought out a number of nuanced views that could not have been gained from a survey. Surveys are OK for capturing statistics, but they don’t get to the “yes, but” views. The issues we were canvassing people’s views on were often complex and the way the interviewees addressed them help very much in shaping responses.
Secondly, I believe it is important to capture people saying what might be quite difficult things to say in public. There is a received wisdom that South Asian communities are highly resistant to letting professional carers into their family relationships, and, if we had just relied on the results of the survey, that is probably the message that would have come through. But the interviews revealed that, because of changes in society, that view is changing. Families are struggling to provide the necessary care in some cases, and they are reluctantly coming to accept that outside help is necessary. But it is acceptable only on certain terms, which include the need for cultural sensitivity, and that it needs to accept that the family is the principal means of care and thus professional care is there to fill in the gaps and must step back when asked to do so.
I’d love to help as many people as possible to use this kind of storytelling in their work. If I can help you, please get in touch.
So, yesterday was the Digital Flu clinic at Seascale Health Centre, in West Cumbria. 392 people came through the centre during the day to get their annual flu jabs. 40 of these signed up to access their health records online for the first time, and 20 or so of them came to see me to get advice on their digital lives.
And there is the rub, and it’s why we were doing this really. Getting nearly 400 people in one place on one day is a rare opportunity in such a sparsely populated part of the country. The fact that such a small proportion of them wanted advice on digital issues shows the scale of the challenge. And it was not because they were sorted for that kind of thing. I engaged a lot of people in conversation about use of the internet. The vast majority of them said things like “I don’t do the internet”, or “I am not interested in that kind of thing”. They were mainly older people, and most of them live in areas where both landline and mobile signals are poor. This is a combination of factors which combines to produce a lack of awareness of the benefits of being online. And, in the cases where connectivity is poor, even if they are willing, they probably won’t be able to pursue their interest.
But, we always knew this was not going to be easy. This event is the start of a process. The surgery wants to interact with people online, to help people manage their health through apps and online processes, and to cut down social isolation by connecting people together. I also met with Councillor Keith Hitchen who talked about the frustrations of carers having to travel long distances to meet and attend events. The traveling cuts into the respite time they have, and they often have to miss large parts of events because of the time it takes to get to and from the venue. Online events and other interactions would be so valuable in these instances.
So, there are a number of strands we will be pursuing in the coming weeks, including looking at ways of tackling connectivity issues, working out the most cost-effective ways of ensuring that people can get independent advice on their digital needs, and working with local organisations to upskill them in areas such as video-conferencing and streaming meetings.
I’ll leave the last word to the couple I talked to about their use of FaceTime. “Do you use it to talk to family abroad?” I asked them. “Yes, only last night we used it to see our newly-born 6th grandchild in Toronto” they said. Don’t you dare try to tell me (or them) that new technologies are de-humanising.
This Saturday (7th October) I will be undertaking what I think is another first, a Digital Flu Clinic. What’s that, I hear you ask?
Well, I’ll be working with Seascale Health Centre in Cumbria to provide digital advice to the people who come to the Flu Clinic there this weekend. Like most parts of the health infrastructure, the Health Centre is keen to encourage its patients to take up online health services and use health apps. Many of its patients are older, and that applies particularly to those who are eligible for annual flu jabs. These patients are less likely to be using online services, particularly as broadband and mobile connectivity are poor in the area.
Seascale Health Centre covers an area of some 350 square miles which has a population only of around 5,500. 450 people are booked into the Flu Clinic, so this is a rare opportunity in such a sparsely populated area to get such a large group of people together in one place. And it is an added bonus that most of the 450 will be older people.
I am really looking forward to helping people to get to grips with the issues holding back their digital lives. Solving those issues will have much wider benefits in their lives than simply interacting with health services. I also think we have hit upon a concept that could be replicated elsewhere. Who else is up for a Digital Flu Clinic?
Last night I was at a great event at Salford University launching the “Fair Press for Tenants” guide for journalists, produced by Benefit to Society a collective of organisations which has come together to promote positive images of tenants to counter the negativity which often features in mainstream media. Their message is music to my ears as it is a theme I have been focusing on for the best part of the past 5 years.
It was a great event, and there were some wonderful people there. I think the guide is great, but, as I pointed out in the discussion, journalists are not the only people who need to be focused on with this message. Certain politicians have been cheerleaders in stigmatising social housing tenants, and the people who make programmes like “Benefits Street”, “How to Get a Council House”, “On Benefits and Proud”, and “Skint” are generally not journalists, nor are the programme commissioners at organisations like Channel 4 and Channel 5 who decide they should be made.
It was particularly interesting to hear from Eric Smith about the experiences of living in Wythenshawe, South Manchester when “Shameless” was being made, and the impact that had on outsider’s perceptions of the area. After the event some of us had a discussion about whether we could make our own programmes which are the antidote to poverty porn TV. I am definitely up for that if we can raise the resources. Who’s in?
When did we allow the Public Sector to become “other”? I’ve just read yet another article about people doing things for themselves rather than leaving it to the “impersonal” public sector. All power to them, but why the contrast?. We have allowed the media and certain politicians to paint public organisations as being separate from the public, and, it has to be said, a certain kind of management culture and jobsworthiness kind of fosters that within a lot of civic organisations.
But, we should remember that public organisations ARE us. The public funds them through various kinds of taxes, and we elect politicians to oversee them. The public sector represents people’s desire to act collectively to get things done that we cannot achieve on our own. But still there are those who would like us to forget that. This is the reason I have formed the Civic Story Factory to unlock the stories of people doing great work on our behalf.
It’s that time of year. The time to think about making sure no one need be lonely at Christmas (or at any other time).
This year I want to do a number of things, principally, help bring a digital element to older people’s Christmas Parties, as I did here. I need partners and funding to make this happen. Please get in touch if you can help.