Video technologies strengthen connections for elders amid pandemic

With the spread of COVID-19 many people are gradually becoming used to video technologies to keep in touch with family and friends.

So too is a group of elders in a New South Wales aged-care home who participated in an intergenerational learning program using video conferencing with primary school students.

Designed by Griffith University alumnus Greg Cronan, the weekly program involves 30 students in Year 6 engaging in video calls with elders for reciprocal learning activities based on the school curriculum.

As residential aged-care homes are now in lockdown to minimise health risks to residents, Mr Cronan said social isolation from family, friends and the community along with boredom and lack of meaningful mental stimulation was a major problem.

“Programs such as these can help alleviate some of the negative effects of social isolation, boredom and loneliness,’’ he said.

The program began as intergenerational research project, supervised by Professor Anneke Fitzgerald from Griffith Business School. Its purpose was to explore whether reciprocal learning could be achieved between school students in a classroom and elders in an aged-care home using video conferencing, in contrast to co-located activities where both age groups are physically in the same room.

“As a result of these interactions students have developed more self-confidence, are more attentive in class, learning outcomes have increased in addition to improved ‘real-time’ conversational and enquiry skills,’’ Mr Cronan said.

“This has been complemented by an increase in student attendance rates. The students have also developed a deeper sense of empathy, gratitude and respect of elders. They have also gained a richer understanding of history by speaking with primary sources — the elders – about school subjects, rather than searching the internet for information.

“Many have developed better relationships with their own grandparents and family. Their vocabulary has increased as has their ability to ask open-ended questions. Students with behaviour and intellectual difficulties have also excelled.”

Positive feedback

Mr Cronan, who completed a Bachelor of Business (Honours) investigating intergenerational learning in an online environment, said feedback from the aged-care facility, healthcare staff and management was overwhelmingly positive.

“We’ve been told that the residents love seeing and speaking with the students. According to observations by the facility manager, these interactions have become a ‘calming intervention’ for elders who have high levels of anxiety, depression and were self-isolating in their rooms long before coronavirus.

Professor Fitzgerald said the current program run by Greg was fantastic.

“We are proud to be part of it and hope to see similar results with younger children (age 3-5) connecting with elders in a community setting during this health crisis” as the use of technology to connect older people with children is rolling out in different contexts,’’ she said.

“Now more than ever we need to nurture our connections with others and develop best intergenerational practice for programs such as these as one solution to loneliness and isolation.

“In addition to family and friends, video conferencing enables other community and religious groups plus elders from other aged care homes and in the community to maintain face-to-face contact with each other.”

The video-conferencing system is connected to a large TV screen so a group of elders or one elder can chat to the students in their classroom, members of their family and the community.

“This is important and practical as some residents do not have the physical or cognitive ability to use a mobile phone, tablet, iPad or laptop.”

Apart from the socialising and mental health benefits of interactions between residents and school students, the technology can also be used for video-based telehealth applications.

Medicare-funded telehealth services are available to residents of aged-care homes from GP clinics, hospitals and other healthcare practitioners. Allied health services including psychology, diversional therapy and physiotherapy can also be provided by video conferencing.