Holidays can be lonely for seniors, but new app can help

Mary Jarvis, 92, is helping test a new app being developed in Toronto that can help seniors who aren't tech-savvy communicate with family and friends.

U of T research lab developed app for seniors to make it easier for them to get online

Mary Jarvis, 93, says she felt socially isolated after her husband died eight years ago. "You get lots of company. Everybody is coming to visit and after that it sort of dies out, and some people pass away." (Michelle Cheung)

A year after moving into the Veterans Centre Resident Care in North York, nothing slows 92-year-old Mary Jarvis down except obstacles in the way of her walker.

She spends her days latch-hooking rugs, reminiscing with fellow residents, baking once a week, and in the summer, she spends most days in the community garden.

But it wasn't always like this:

The great grandmother lost her husband of 60 years on Mother's Day eight years ago.

"I think I went through a period of feeling alone just after my husband passed," said Jarvis. "You're not included the same way when you're a widow or widower because it's always couples."

Holidays are hardest

Holidays can be particularly hard for seniors who are socially isolated:

"Seniors without family or with limited ability to travel and visit their families, due to perhaps a physical condition or limited funds, will inevitably feel an increased sense of loneliness and isolation," wrote Einat Danieli, the project manager at Mount Sinai's ENRICHES Collaborative, in an email to CBC Toronto.

The program Danieli heads is aimed at reducing social isolation for seniors and caregivers. 

"To add to that, many services, such as day programs, community centres, medical offices are closed for the holidays, which adds to their sense of loneliness." she wrote.

Rosalyn Forrester, the co-ordinator for 50+ programs at The 519, said seniors who are socially isolated may feel more stressed, which can lead to other health problems. (Jon Castell/CBC News)

About 50 per cent of seniors over the age of 80 who report feeling lonely have two or more chronic conditions. 

Danieli said loneliness and isolation can increase stress-related disorders such as heart disease, and are linked to higher rates of depression.

It's also harder for seniors to venture out of the house in winter when the streets can be treacherous, said Rosalyn Forrester,  co-ordinator for 50+ programs at The 519 LGBT Community Services.

"If you're online, I always say do some reaching out. Go online, do some searching, look for community, look for community groups. It's much more difficult when you're not online," she said.

Social media for seniors

A University of Toronto research lab is designing technology to encourage more seniors to log on as a means to combat social isolationism.

As people age, they lose some of their motor controls, dexterity and eyesight so seniors might find it challenging to scroll through existing social media apps on a small tablet, said Cosmin Munteanu, co-director of the Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab [TAGLab].

Cosmin Munteanu, co-director of TAGLab. says grandchildren are a great motivator for seniors to get involved in social media. However, many of the existing applications create barriers for seniors with vision and dexterity challenges. (Jon Castell/CBC News)

So, TAGLab is getting seniors to test an app called Connections, which allows them to send text messages, videos and photos from one program on a tablet. The recipient could receive them by email or social media apps.

"Instead of trying to force seniors into Facebook and other things, it's trying to find the common ground and bridge ... so someone can use Facebook on one end and someone can use an application on the other end," Munteanu said. 

"How can we make these things talk together so you get the benefit of both and not having another application someone has to install?"

Jarvis uses a tablet to keep in touch with her four kids, 12 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren, sharing photos and messages. (Jon Castell/CBC News)

Munteanu said the technology is not expected to replace face-to-face interaction for seniors. Instead, the goal is provide access for seniors to family and friends when they're busy.

"They feel more connected to their families. They feel more involved in the family. They are more aware of what goes on in their families."

Handier than a phone

Mary Jarvis said she'd never even seen a tablet before she started testing the app in April. Now she texts her four kids, and their families a few times a week, and they send photos and messages back.

Jarvis said she had never used a tablet until she started testing the TAGLab app for seniors. (Jon Castell/CBC News)

"I can do this anytime of the day. I can write them a message; they might not answer me until after supper, but that's ok, I have sent it," said Jarvis. "In the daytime I can't phone them sometimes because they're too busy, so I find this much handier than a telephone."

Her advice to those who feel lonely: "Keep busy. Don't mope. Don't sit."