It’s widely accepted that technology can improve independence and quality of life for older people. However, a persistent digital divide between younger and older Australians is preventing them from fully participating in the connected, online world
An Australian Government survey in 2018, Understanding Digital Behaviours of Older Australians, found that approximately 26% of Australians aged 50 years and over have low levels of digital literacy. A further 8% are considered ‘digitally disengaged’, meaning they do not use the internet and never perform online activities, with 74% of this group aged 70 years and over1.
This represents a fairly significant problem for aged care providers who can see the advantages of increased technology use among residents (in terms of improved connection to family, and self-sufficiency) but whose workers are already struggling with high workload pressures and do not have the resources to help improve the digital literacy of residents.
Instances like this, where businesses identify a problem or issue that they don’t have the staffing resources or capability to solve, can benefit from TAFE partnerships under an applied research model. This is where the skills and knowledge of TAFE teachers are harnessed to develop solutions in collaboration with an industry client, with students involved as active participants. Businesses benefit from responsive, outcome-oriented research and development, knowledge mobilisation and innovation. Students receive real-world, practical problem-solving opportunities and marketable skills.
An example of this is the not-for-profit organisation Lively, which connects young job seekers with older people that need help in learning how to use technology. Although Lively isn’t a training provider, the organisation’s business model shows how an applied research approach can work. Through Lively, businesses receive help in solving the issue of socially isolated residents and clients by connecting them with young people looking to develop new skills.
Lively was founded in 2015 by Anna Donaldson after she spent time volunteering at an aged care provider and realised how prevalent social isolation is among older people. At the same time, Anna says she had a growing concern about youth unemployment and the fact that many young people were struggling to get a start in the job market due to a lack of experience.
According to the Foundation for Young Australian’s 2018 report The New Work Reality, 31.5% of young people are unemployed or underemployed, with three in four citing an insufficient amount of work experience as the biggest barrier preventing them from transitioning to full-time work2.
Technology skills are something that many young people have and yet take for granted, while technology help for older people is a real area of unmet need
“I just had this light bulb moment where I realised we could bring these two issues together to deliver a work opportunity for young people, providing a support or service that would also help older people maintain social connectedness.”
Lively works with aged care providers, home care providers and community groups including the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Australian Unity, Bally Cara, Yarra Libraries and many more. So far, the organisation has helped 293 older people get connected and given 53 young job seekers a work opportunity.
The young ‘tech helpers’ assist older people in learning how to navigate a diverse range of internet functions, from using e-mails, Google and Skype to managing files, researching family history and using public transport apps. The result is improved digital capabilities.
Digital capabilities have been found to contribute positively to the well-being of older people, with a 2016 Australian study finding that residents in aged care facilities that developed these skills had improved self-esteem/worth, personal development, productivity, occupation, self-sufficiency and enjoyment3.
This is something Anna says she has witnessed in those who have participated in Lively’s program.
“We see a real increase in confidence for the older people who participate in the process, and pride that they’ve mastered something that initially scared them. Being able to go online and find the information they need makes a real difference to their feelings of independence and autonomy, while using online communication tools helps many feel more connected. Even for those who don’t go on to use the technology a lot in their day-to-day life, knowing more about what’s possible and what the technology actually is means they don’t feel as disconnected from the digital world.”
Young people who are employed as tech helpers experience similar outcomes, particularly around improved self-worth.
“For the young people, the process really improves their confidence and self-esteem, as well as their communication and interpersonal skills. It also challenges some of the misconceptions and stereotypes that they might have in their mind about older people,” says Anna.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that older people don’t want to use technology. However, 50% of respondents in the Understanding Digital Behaviours of Older Australians survey said they wanted to use the internet more and would be more likely to use it if certain barriers around access, knowledge about devices and learning how to do things were addressed4.
These are issues that many aged care providers do not have the resources to address, but that young people are well-equipped to solve. Using an applied research model in this scenario therefore increases the wellbeing of residents without impacting staff productivity. Staff can focus on, and specialise in, their caring duties rather than teaching residents technology skills, and the business accesses a tailored innovation that helps solve a tangible problem.
Applied research is gaining momentum among TAFE providers in Victoria, which is the only state government with an open, competitive application round to fund applied research projects, known as the Workforce Training and Innovation Fund (WTIF). Additionally, several major TAFE providers in Victoria are looking to develop an applied research capacity, including the C4DE’s training partners.
We’ll be drawing on these in the future to showcase more examples of how an applied research model can benefit industry.