The aim of the Digital Buddies project was to reduce isolation and loneliness amongst older people in Chester by enabling them to increase their use of digital technology.
Digital Buddies was funded with £60,000 as part of Brightlife’s ‘Key Commissions’ strand and was delivered over two years by Here and Now Chester, a registered charity working with older people in the region.
Digital Buddies employed a part-time Project Officer to set up, manage and promote the project, recruit and train volunteers, and to lead the group sessions.
Initially, the main focus of the project was to provide one-to-one support to participants in their own homes, as the use of digital technology to remain connected with the outside world was predicted to be of the greatest benefit to those least able to leave their homes.
However, it quickly became apparent that demand for this type of support was low, with those participants who did receive it expressing an interest in learning instead within a group setting, which they saw as a more relaxed way to acquire new skills. Under test and learn, a decision was made to concentrate on delivering group sessions (with one-to-one support as needed) in community venues.
Weekly group sessions were established in a number of libraries in Chester. Sessions covered a range of digital technology topics and skills to build knowledge and confidence, and were co-designed with participants to ensure that the content and pace of learning were appropriate to their needs. Participants were also given the opportunity to take part in projects and presentations using their new skills, during which they conducted research on the internet and used presentation software.
Volunteers were available during the sessions to provide one-to-one support for those participants who wanted to be able to achieve specific things with digital technology. This allowed participants to learn at their own pace and to develop the skills that were most important to them. Most of the volunteers engaged in the Digital Buddies project were students from Chester University.
Recruitment of participants was encouraged through the distribution in community settings of branded leaflets, posters and banners advertising upcoming sessions, and through social media engagement. Many participants were also referred by staff at the libraries in which the sessions were held, after making general enquiries about available services.
The majority of participants were aged over 70 and reported having little or no experience of using digital technology prior to taking part in the Digital Buddies project. Some had been given smartphones or tablets by family members to enable them to keep in touch more easily, but lacked the skills and knowledge to use them, while others had been prompted to learn how to use digital technology in order to access services online.
To encourage a wider range of participants to attend the community group sessions, 8-week programmes were also held in a number of residential care settings. These programmes were promoted through taster sessions, which in this setting were found to be a more effective recruitment tool than leaflet advertising. While these programmes proved popular, few participants went on to attend the community-based groups due to mobility issues or lack of suitable transport, and unfortunately, limited availability of volunteers meant that it was not possible to continue providing sessions in these residential care settings.
Anecdotal reports suggest that participation in the Digital Buddies project improved social connectedness, not only through facilitation of new friendships and provision of access to new activities in the community, but also through participants’ improved ability to connect with their friends and family online.
Despite these reports from participants, the quantitative data available from the project does not show any improvement in terms of a reduction in loneliness and isolation. However, the conclusions that can be drawn from this data are very limited, due to the small number of participants who took part in the formal evaluation (this, in turn, reflects the number of people for whom short-term, one-to-one support was the most appropriate way to engage).
It is possible that greater use of digital technology will reduce the risk of these individuals becoming isolated and lonely in the future, but as prevention is difficult to measure, it was not covered by the formal evaluation.
Delivering the Digital Buddies project has resulted in the creation of a new strand of work for Here and Now, along with the development of new skills and experience amongst the staff team.
Connections with other organisations, developed during delivery of the Digital Buddies project, have been maintained, and many of the volunteers from the project have remained involved.
A regular Digital Buddies session, attracting up to 20 participants per week, has been sustained at one of the community venues used during the project (Storyhouse in Chester). Delivery costs have been minimised by Here and Now, through the retention of volunteers and by negotiating use of the venue free of charge.
The Brightlife Team is working closely with our lead body Age UK Cheshire on an integrated approach to responding to Covid-19.
Together we have set up a Community Response Team that covers four geographical areas across Cheshire. The Community Response Team has established a single point of contact telephone line to provide support for older people with: