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When it comes to technology, we often immediately think of robots and complicated algorithms. For some of the elderly, smartphones and apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp are already rather hard to comprehend. This social technology can help the elderly to be connected, one of the most important social needs. Tina ten Bruggencate, lecturer in applied psychology at Fontys Hogescholen, obtained her Ph.D. at the beginning of July with research into the social needs of the elderly and the role that social technology plays in fulfilling these needs. “With social technology, they stay informed about the lives of their children and grandchildren, that’s nice of course,” she says. But how far do we want to go with this digital communication? To what extent can a device replace the need for human contact?

Tina ten Bruggencate

What exactly is social technology?

“From my research, called The need to be needed, it appears that older people need three things in the social field: independence, meaningful life, and connectedness. Technology can contribute to meeting the need to be connected. By social technology, we mean all technology that facilitates interaction between people. This can be social media, but also e-mail and the old-fashioned telephone. This enriches and strengthens the contacts of the elderly.”

“In a way, the smartphone or iPad can also ensure that older people are independent, for example, because they can take care of things themselves. They also indicated that they like to have a smartphone in their pocket when they go somewhere. The device makes them feel safe. It makes them go out sooner or more often. On the other hand, the device also makes older people more dependent on family members because they themselves do not know how it works. Updates, wifi connections, and all the different buttons sometimes are a cause for confusion. An older man said catchy: ‘My smartphone and I are not always friends. It’s a kind of a love-hate relationship’.”

The role of social technology in fulfilling the need for a meaningful life is less obvious, Ten Bruggencate says. “Nevertheless, there are certainly opportunities. For example, social technology could match older people to activities or voluntary work that suits them.”

Do you think the coronacrisis still affects the use of technology or the way older people look at it?

“During the corona crisis, the power of this technology became clear. Physical contact was difficult, but by sending a message or sharing a photo, the elderly could still enjoy the contact they so long for. In daily life, this also applies to people who live far away. Moreover, it reassures friends and family to hear from their loved ones in this way. Then you know they are doing well.”

It struck Ten Bruggencate that, during the corona crisis, there was a focus on the medical side and the technology in that area. “In my opinion, very little attention was paid to the social side, you saw this especially in nursing homes. Human contact, especially in difficult times, is very important. I think that today’s technology has contributed to the well-being of the elderly in these times. Although video calling is not the same as a contact in real life, it certainly offers a way out of their loneliness.”

Today’s technology has contributed to the well-being of the elderly in Corona times.

Tina ten Bruggencate

“In elder care in general, there is often a focus on the physical side. People need to be showered and to take their medication on time. But the social side, for example by having a chat, is just as important. Loneliness has a direct influence on the health of the elderly.”

What is the impact of social technology on the lives of the elderly?

“A typical example comes from my own family. Both my mother and my mother-in-law have (grand)children living far away. My mother-in-law always uses WhatsApp and enjoys it when she receives photos of the grandchildren. My mother doesn’t like technology. That’s why she misses some fun moments of the children and grandchildren. This shows that technology does have an impact on the lives of the elderly.”

Ten Bruggencate’s research showed that older people who are already involved in social technology often see it as something positive. “Elderly people who don’t use it were a bit more skeptical. Some see it as a necessity to email or WhatsApp, for example, because some companies can no longer be reached by phone. They’re afraid they’re going to fall behind.”

With the knowledge you’ve gained, what do you think the future will look like?

“Elderly people now sometimes feel excluded by society. Many older people have to deal with stereotyping. Sometimes, for example, they are kept ‘outside’ because people think that they cannot physically or mentally cope with a certain event. That is not good for them. It has been proven that if you think negatively about someone, they are also less well off. If you think positive, it makes people feel better and, therefore, they perform better.”

Language Cafe

“I hope that, in the future, we will better use the talents of older people in general in society. That is good for them, but society also benefits. As a result of my findings, a language café has been opened in Eindhoven. Elderly people teach the Dutch language here, for example to expats and refugees. That is a success. Elderly people enjoy being able to contribute something. It is important to organize activities, just those bingo evenings are not always enough. We have to make sure that they can really use their talents for the benefit of society, for example by volunteering.”

“An interesting consequence of this is that older people are more likely to ask for help if they have given something themselves. It gives them the feeling that they can get something in return. In addition, I think that technology can help the elderly to stay socially connected with their loved ones. They themselves see it as a means to maintain existing contacts, not so much to make new ones. Contacts in daily life, both intimate conversations with loved ones and short conversations with a neighbor or cashier, remain very important. I don’t think we should replace human contact with technology altogether. That’s why I hope that in the future we will handle it with care and, above all, maintain personal contact with our older friends and family members.”

I don’t think we should replace human contact with technology altogether.

Tina ten Bruggencate, Fontys