Sandra Smele is the Coordinator of Expertise in Inclusive Aging, Diversity, Health and Well-being at CREGÉS. Her work focuses on the development of research and leading practices that promote the social inclusion, social participation, health and well-being of older adults by attending to intersectional differences. She has contributed to a number of interdisciplinary projects in social gerontology, and her current collaborations focus on enhancing quality of life and engagement through building creative, community relationships, identifying and promoting practices that support wellness in residential care, improving access to health and social services for marginalized older adult populations, and supporting the digital citizenship and digital health literacy of older adults. Sandra is also a Research Associate of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute.
Shifting Support for the Social Participation of Older Adults Online: Lessons Learned about Access through the “Count Me In!” Program
Sandra Smele, Centre for Research and Expertise in Social Gerontology (CREGÉS), Canada
The Count Me In! Program supports the social participation of older adults experiencing isolation related to psychosocial difficulties. Prior to the pandemic, the program was being adapted to meet the needs of isolated older residents living in a social housing complex in Trois-Rivières, Québec. With the onset of the pandemic, this adaptation shifted towards developing an online version of the program in order to support the social participation of these residents within the context of the pandemic-related public health measures.
In this presentation we outline the lessons learned from our efforts to provide the Count Me In! Program online. Drawing on and extending the concept of access outlined in Lafontaine and Sawchuk (2015), we identify three key challenges that were faced by our team.
The first of these challenges was related to determining and acquiring the means to meet the technological needs of those who would participate in the program. Though our research team assumed that residents would require the provision of devices, and funds for the purchase of tablets had been acquired through a special COVID-based grant initiative, determining which tablets to purchase, how they should be preconfigured, how to connect residents to the internet, and how much data to provide was less than straightforward. These components of access, which included consideration of what Lafontaine and Sawchuk describe as the “general literacy” of those facing “factors of exclusion linked to socio-economic class that influence the ability […] to interact with these devices and to engage in digital learning” (p. 215) were a crucial consideration for our team, yet we faced a dearth of knowledge and technological support to guide our decisions. A second challenge to access was related to the fact that support professionals could not act as “warm experts” (p. 217) to residents following an online version of the program. The support professionals who had pre-existing relationships with the older residents living in the social housing complex, and who had shown interest in delivering the program online, were not familiar with how to do so. They were in the process of developing the more general ability to provide support online, and this process was ongoing and new to them. The final key challenge to access was the fact that those most in need of support to engage in social participation, online or otherwise, were the most difficult to reach. While not an entirely new access issue, the circumstances of the pandemic made this more difficult for support professionals who wanted to ensure that they were reaching those most vulnerable to social isolation.
Making an online version of Count Me In! accessible to these individuals during the pandemic was commonly identified as simply not feasible. Together, the challenges faced by our team demonstrate the centrality of access to the implementation of an online program that supports the social participation of isolated older adults. Future research and programming on online supports for the social participation of this group, particularly those residing in social housing, must contend with these challenges.
Lafontaine, C., & Sawchuk, K. (2015). Accessing interACTion: Ageing with technologies and the place of access. In J. Zhou & G. Salvendy (Eds.), Human Aspects of IT for the Aged Population: Design for Aging (Vol. 9193, pp. 210–220). Springer.