Blog: Tech solutions for rural isolation

Published: 28 Aug 2018

Author: Martin Malcolm
Blog: Tech solutions for rural isolation

Isolation and loneliness have long been known to have deep-rooted psychological impacts. There is now a growing body of evidence that loneliness is as great a public health challenge as smoking or obesity.

The impact felt by those living in rural communities could be greater again. Geographical remoteness can present a physical barrier to social connectedness, meaning that innovative approaches are needed. Living and working in the Western Isles, one of the most remote parts of the UK, I have witnessed the devastating effects loneliness can have on people and communities.

Through my work as a public health advisor for NHS Western Isles, I have explored the innovative role that technology and community-based interventions could provide to remote rural communities. My Churchill Fellowship has provided me with an exciting opportunity to develop this further.

Below: Martin Malcolm

Martin Malcolm

On my trip to Canada last year, I wanted to gain an insight into how communities similar to my own were tackling isolation. I completed an ambitious programme that took me from east to mid-west prairies, to the stylish west coast and then up to the remote mountainous areas of British Colombia, the Rockies and the rural Prince Edward Island.

I visited Technology Labs that were developing solutions for social support, as well as the community organisations in rural areas that were applying the technology. At the AGEWELL technology network at universities in Vancouver and Toronto I met developers creating exciting social support tools, such as digital storytelling apps and futuristic social robot prototypes.

Seeing the application of such technology emphasised the importance of co-design to ensure technological solutions meet the needs of their users, with its role being to support and not be a substitute for human contact.

One example of such an application of technology was the use of a custom-designed tablet by seniors in a Lake Ontario residential home. The tablet had a simplified integrated user interface that dispensed with the often confusing and complex array of add-ons that typically come with an off-the-shelf device, which the residents of the home felt they didn’t require. This simple device was transformational in allowing these older people to develop social connections in the home and maintain friendships outside.

Below: a custom-designed tablet for seniors at a Lake Ontario residential home

A custom designed tablet

My findings have informed a number of projects that I have set up here in the Western Isles, including a programme to reduce the isolation of older people in care homes by using video calls to link them with school children. This has seen school children share films of their school concerts with older people who, because of physical health issues, are unable to attend in person.

I’ve also established collaborations with areas across Europe facing similar rural challenges. These partnerships have led to invitations to present at EU events In Edinburgh, Sweden and Portugal.

Later this year I will plan the second phase of my Fellowship, visiting New Zealand to learn from their approaches to this issue. I’m looking forward to some spectacular scenery and meeting more of the resourceful people that seem to abound in rural communities!

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