Big Idea: Harnessing technology to combat loneliness and addiction

ElderTree connects older adults
Big Idea: Harnessing technology to combat loneliness and addiction
Photo by Paulius Musteikis
David Gustafson

It’s been 15 years since UW-Madison College of Engineering emeritus research professor David Gustafson, who is not an addict or alcoholic, checked himself into rehab to better understand what patients go through. The end result of his Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies team’s work was A-CHESS, a revolutionary smartphone app designed to aid people in recovery that today has 6,000 users and is a finalist in Harvard’s 2017 Innovations in American Government Awards. Now, he has set his sights on helping a population he says suffers from similar issues of isolation and loneliness: senior citizens.

“What the older adults were saying to us was I’m lonely, I’m isolated, I don’t know enough going on in my community that might be fun to get engaged in, and I couldn’t get there even if I wanted to because of transportation,” says Gustafson, who began researching the problem six years ago, leading a volunteer team of 20 UW-Madison faculty and students across colleges and departments including engineering, communications science, family medicine, gerontology, psychology and computer science. Each spent four hours a week for eight weeks in a senior center. Now funded by an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality grant and in collaboration with the state of Wisconsin, County Aging and Disability Resource Centers, and the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging, the team is led by head of dissemination Scott Gatzke. They interviewed more than 300 older adults in three counties–Richland, Waukesha and Milwaukee–culminating in yet another computer-based program: ElderTree Wisconsin.Big Idea: Harnessing technology to combat loneliness and addiction

“Most folks go: ‘Well, this sounds kind of like Facebook,’ ” says Gatzke. “While it may have social media underpinnings, there’s some huge differences.”

ElderTree is a social network site designed specifically for and limited to adults 55 and older, with an average age of 76. (Gustafson says one member of the initial study was 103, and Gatzke says one of ElderTree’s most active members is 90.) Features include big buttons, large fonts, easy navigation, vetted invitations, no advertising and a health tracker tool. It has more than 500 members across 55 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, and Gustafson’s team continues to collect and analyze data in six-month intervals, with early–but very promising–results.

“What it appears to be at this point is almost certainly a substantial improvement in quality of life,” says Gustafson, reporting preliminary findings such as reductions in health symptoms and depression, and noting the highest level of use is from those who live alone, have fallen recently or feel that no one loves them.

“We found that technology, designed with a deep understanding of the customer, can make a humongous difference in their lives,” says Gustafson.

Maggie Ginsberg is a senior contributing writer for Madison Magazine.

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