McGill Centre for Studies in Aging
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CONNECTIONS: Internet Access for Frail Older Seniors
to Improve their Psychosocial Well-being.
Fiona Clark and Silva M. Straka, McGill Centre for the Studies in Aging

Frail older seniors, whether they live at home or in a residence, are at risk of being marginalized and socially excluded. Providing them with Internet access could help narrow the gap between these frail seniors and society, thereby enhancing their self-esteem and reducing their social isolation. In addition a computer programme could promote mental health by providing mental stimulation and the opportunity to learn new information and skills.

Frail seniors at five Montreal institutions (three day centres and two residences) were given the opportunity to use computers and the Internet on a regular basis. This project, initiated and coordinated by the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging, was funded by Canada's Office of Learning Technologies (HRDC).

The goal of the study was to demonstrate the value of providing frail seniors with Internet access. Four research topics were explored in order to help other sites implement similar programmes and to provide a rationale for such programmes:

  1. To examine the feasibility of providing the necessary resources, both human and technical.
  2. To see what kinds of people participate.
  3. To determine how much and for what purpose participants use the computer.
  4. To examine what psychosocial benefits are experienced by the participants.

The study had a quasi-experimental design. Participants were interviewed before the beginning of the project and six months after they started. The SF-12® Health Survey was also administered on a pre-test and post-test basis. Other data collected included computer usage logs, questionnaires for volunteers and teachers and a focus group for the site-coordinators.

The teaching programme began with nine weeks of teaching by an experienced teacher. Following this, participants were helped by volunteers for the remainder of the six months. A computer manual was provided to each participant.

Eighty-four participants (26 males and 58 females) with a mean age of 85.5 took part in the study. Day centre participants were five years younger, but had lower physical health scores than participants at residences. Participants came from a variety of ethno-cultural backgrounds and life experiences. Most participants had some level of physical disability, especially in terms of vision, hand mobility and general mobility. Educational levels varied, from several who had grade 3 education to those with graduate degrees.

Although participants used a variety of programmes, the most popular was e-mail, as reported by over three-quarters of the people interviewed. Apart from e-mail, computer usage depended on the participants' interests and ranged from surfing the Internet to using Word for a variety of personal projects to playing games.

Most participants experienced a variety of self-reported benefits. One of the most important was that after receiving some computer instruction, they reported that they now felt part of society again. Another key benefit was the strengthening of their social networks by e-mail. Other major benefits included a sense of mastery and achievement, the pleasure of gaining new knowledge and just learning how computers work. For many, it provided much needed mental stimulation and challenge, while for others, it was a way to fill a void in their lives. Almost all the participants reported multiple benefits in these categories.

Of the original cohort 81% completed the nine-week course, and after six months 53% were still planning to continue computer activities. The only predictive variable for persistence was that of e-mail usage. Almost all those who reported a lot of e-mail use, and almost three-quarters of those who reported a little e-mail use were still in the programme after 6 months.

The project was successful in different settings with a wide variety of individuals. The outcomes show that it is well worth the effort of implementing and maintaining such a programme in terms of the benefits it provides to the participants, as well as to the institutions, the teachers and the volunteers.

Documentation in English:  
Report to the Office of Learning Technologies
- includes a full report on the research study.
- 503k
Report for those who are interested in running a computer programme in a similar context - emphasis is on the implementation experience. -183k
Volunteers Handbook - 115k
Computer Instuction Manual for Seniors - 721k

Documentation in French:  
Un rapport pour d'autres personnes qui envisageraient d'offrir leur propre programme dans un contexte semblable - il dresse un compte rendu détaillé de l’expérience vécue, en insistant particulièrement sur la mise en oeuvre. - 166k
Manuel de bénévole - 120k
Guide d'utilisation de l'ordinateur - 715k

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