Social engagement technologies: Providers' best practices

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Majd Alwan, Ph.D.
Majd Alwan, Ph.D.

Ray Heuser, a 78-year-old resident of Longwood at Oakmont, near Pittsburgh, and longtime tech aficionado, is key to that life plan community's head-on intervention of a silent killer among older Americans: social isolation.

Heuser, through his involvement with Longwood at Oakmont's resident technology interest committee, champions the use of and helps to improve MyLAO, an app-based digital technology used to increase residents' engagement and community interaction.

For Longwood at Oakmont, a LeadingAge member in Verona, PA, as for all providers of aging services, social isolation is a major concern. Social isolation has been shown to increase the risk for a variety of poor health outcomes in people of all ages. Whether a phone call, a Facebook post or having coffee with a neighbor, regular social interactions keep all of us psychologically sound. Without these connections, we suffer; the health effects of prolonged isolation, according to the results of one study, are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The good news is that tech can help. An array of solutions and devices to help older Americans surmount isolation — from apps such as the one in use at Longwood at Oakmont, to headphones for the hard-of-hearing that mimic the look of trendy Beats by Dr. Dre, or friendly, digital avatars reminiscent of “Lady” from the animated Disney classic that augment home-care services — are now available. But sorting through the options can be overwhelming, and successful implementation often is a mix of art and science, requiring clarity on the needs, desired functionalities and maybe even preliminary testing and reassessment.

To help providers determine the best solution for their needs, LeadingAge CAST's Social Connectedness and Engagement Technology workgroup, which includes Longwood at Oakmont and other aging services providers, late last year released a free, comprehensive online resource that covers a variety of tech solutions that aid social connectedness and engagement. Here, drawn from actual CAST members' experience, are some best practices to help providers successfully plan for, select, test and implement such tech solutions.

Planning, selection and implementation:

  • Get buy-in and support from all groups involved in tech use: leadership, activity department management and staff, as well as your tech champion residents — such as Ray Heuser (pictured here helping fellow residents). Consider discussions with family members if the technology is to be used to communicate with family.
  • Provide sufficient time to train your organization's staff and your champions before rolling out new technology to a pilot group.
  • Select a test population carefully to ensure its members are willing and able to use and engage with the technology and ultimately benefit from it. Track results carefully, and tweak as necessary, to avoid expanding too quickly. Lessons learned from the trial period can be used to adjust and enhance the program as it expands to other communities.
  • Be mindful that the benefit of a tech solution may not be immediately apparent, either to staff or residents. Don't hesitate to customize, personalize or adjust a solution on a case-by-case basis. Though time-intensive, doing so increases the odds of adoption and improved quality of life and care for the residents involved.
  • Solicit feedback continually, and from a wide group of staff and residents involved. One provider found that residents were more likely to share their preferences with dining and maintenance staff, with whom their bond was stronger, than with the tech support team involved!

Marketing and use:

  • Communication about availability and use of a tech solution must be continual and widespread. Family members, for instance, can help advocate for and encourage use of a tech solution, especially if they are using it on the other end.
  • Track resident use of technology over time to ensure continual adoption. Keep tabs on resident/client logins to aid with IT support. Brainstorm with your vendor and your activities and engagement staff members to ensure continued embracement and use over time.
  • Address concerns and manage expectations. Keep residents and staff informed about and assured of security measures and the protection of personal information. Let them know what management does and does not expect from the adoption of new technology.


  • Identify and train residents, like Ray Heuser, as ambassadors; they can encourage use and help with training and support throughout the day and in non-classroom situations.
  • Limit size of onboard/training sessions to 10 to 15 residents per session to ensure that sufficient attention is given to each participant.
  • Monitor the rate of adoption, and identify additional or special training needs and any accessibility/use needs. Users with poor vision or who have difficulty with steady hand motion, for instance, may need additional support.

Check out CAST's Social Connectedness and Engagement Resources, read our case studies, use our online selection tool and let me know your thoughts.  

Majd Alwan is executive director of LeadingAge's Center for Aging Services Technologies, or CAST, responsible for creating and leading a network of technology companies, providers and research institutions focused on technology solutions for an aging society. Follow him on Twitter @LeadingAgeCAST.

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