Older people – especially in rural areas – often suffer from loneliness, which can subsequently become a health problem. The INTERREG project ECARE aims to tackle social isolation with the help of new digital communication options.
When speaking about the topic of e-health, Cornelia Sicher, a researcher at the Department of Public Management, likes to use terms such as “self-management”. The computer scientists with a doctorate in business administration sees the empowerment of the elderly as a significant opportunity to improve the health of the individuals affected in the long term. “Loneliness is a health problem. We want to help people to monitor themselves and to find their way back into society. The methods we use are integrated platforms, digital communication methods, coupled with social exchange, and neighbourly assistance”, she explains. Partners from Italy approached her with a request to test a new technological system, which works along these lines, offering older people more opportunities to communicate, a greater degree of self-organisation, and technical support in their daily routines. Cornelia Sicher’s team is responsible for conducting the accompanying research and has been tasked with measuring the social and economic effects of the new system. The development of corresponding measuring instruments and indicators commenced at the beginning of the year.
From February onwards, the first batch of households of people aged 65 years and above, living alone and at home, is gradually being equipped with the devices, namely with smart watches and tablets with specially designed apps. The target group is given specially tailored training. Cornelia Sicher tells us: “We want to supply the people with a high-quality comprehensive package. It’s not about simply strapping a smart watch around their wrist and placing a tablet computer into their hands. Rather, we want to understand: How do they live? What problems do they experience? How can help be provided to address their social isolation?” Sicher goes on to tell us that many young people migrate to the cities in Northern Italy, leaving the elderly behind in rural areas and – what is even more worrying – there are far too few beds available in homes for cases requiring care. Social isolation has the effect that people take less care of themselves, reducing how much they move, and giving up on numerous tasks. This is detrimental to their mental agility, physical complaints increase. The project will ultimately involve 80 participants from Treviso, 40 from Belluno, and 16 from Pordenone. Associated partners in Carinthia hope to acquire a further 10 to 20 households in order to test the new technological possibilities.
We ask Cornelia Sicher whether she feels that policymakers and players in the field of health care are doing enough to meet the challenges of demographic change and her answer is optimistic: “I have the impression that there is a lot going on. Here, too, there is interest in rolling out methods of this kind and offering a set of ‘social-meets-digital’ instruments in combination with support provided by a relief organization. After all: People need other people. What is more, the important question arises: Who is going to finance this?” Sicher and her team also see it as their duty to demonstrate that investments in systems of this kind will result in quality improvements and in lower consequential costs in the health sector in the long run.
for ad astra: Romy Müller
translation: Karen Meehan