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.
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.
Please get in touch if you want to work with me on this.