How can we use digital to reduce social isolation over Christmas?

Connect Up is a project from Good Things Foundation, funded by the Scheinberg Relief Fund, to tackle loneliness and social isolation in older people. Connect Up will reach 17,500 older people who have been digitally and socially excluded during the pandemic and equip them with the skills needed to make and maintain meaningful connections with others.

With increasing focus being placed on saving the social gatherings of Christmas this year, we are all becoming more aware of the many people who will be spending the holidays alone. Covid restrictions are the reason some people will be unable to see friends and loved ones, but there are many who will be facing a lonely Christmas whether there are restrictions in place or not. Pre-pandemic, Age UK reported that half a million older people go four to five days a week without seeing or speaking to another person. This number is now likely to be much, much higher.

There are as many as 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK

(Campaign to End Loneliness).

Digital has opened doors to new ways of communicating by video call and Whatsapp for some older people over the past 20 months, but there are still many people that don’t have the kit, internet access or skills needed to connect with others online. 18% of people aged 65+ don’t have internet access at home (Ofcom 2021), and 49% of people aged 75+ are limited users of the internet (Good Things Foundation Digital Nation 2021), meaning they aren’t fully benefiting from the gains that digital can bring.

Members of the Connect Up Community of Practice come from organisations that are working to support older people to get online and reduce social isolation. The Community recently held the first meetup to discuss how we can use digital to reduce social isolation over the Christmas period.

Laying foundations

Organisations have spent months laying the foundations for the people they support by making sure they can access online services and make video calls over the holidays. Some organisations are providing access to kit and connectivity, like Age UK’s brilliant tablet loan scheme where they are encouraging people to “give it a go.” And others have spent time making sure people have the skills and confidence to participate in online events during the run up to the season, like Mark Gittos of Vivid Homes who used a fantastic board game to sneakily teach people digital skills in a safe, friendly environment. May Connolly from Heeley Development Trust said they have been talking to people about their plans for the holidays to identify people who might be alone and who’d appreciate some festive support or activities.

Online activities

We heard about some really creative and fun ways to get older people engaged with digital over the festive period from Rachel Benn of 100% Digital Leeds. This included:

  • Joining virtual carol concerts and live streamed religious services
  • Using online festive games and quizzes
  • Sending cards via online services like Moonpig or Funky Pigeon

Other organisations talked about their plans for holding quizzes and story-telling events over Zoom, or even setting their learners a digital advent challenge!

Facilitating connections

It’s not just about support from the organisation, many have had success by helping older people to connect with their peers online. 100% Digital Leeds told us about two people from an online coffee morning who organised a Christmas dinner over Zoom. They would have spent the day completely alone otherwise. Other organisations told us about simple ways to facilitate peer connections, like setting up Whatsapp Groups or Facebook Groups for older people who want to connect over the festive period.

Holistic support

Of course most of these community organisations provide a range of support services and digital is just a small part of what they do. The festive season can be a difficult time for many people, and it’s hard to know where to go for support with so many businesses and services closing for the holidays. Ann and Rich Avison from Lincs Digital told us about how they research what’s open and what support is available over Christmas so that they can signpost their older learners to services like chemists, shops, etc.

Concerns

During the pandemic many well-meaning family members have gifted devices to their older relatives, but don’t have the time to help them to learn how to use it and feel confident doing so. If people don’t know where to get support, these devices often go unused and their owners are left unable to connect with people digitally. In general organisations were worried that they aren’t reaching the people who most need support, especially with Covid safety guidelines in place. We need to make sure that we get the word out, use the right language and find new ways to reach the people who are most digitally and socially excluded.

Summing up

Across the board, organisations said that they were in a much better position to support older people over Christmas than last year. Staff and volunteers had digitally upskilled and are now much more comfortable running online activities and other types of remote support. They’ve had time to create digital resources, and they’ve also helped their service users to feel confident using Zoom and other tools to stay in touch.

As a result of all the hard work from these organisations there are many more people this Christmas who will be connecting – both online and with each other. Here’s to connecting even more people in 2022!

Louise Branch

Community Engagement Manager

Louise looks for opportunities to support and strengthen our network, working with the wider organisation to develop useful training and networking opportunities for our community partners.