Background: The aging of the population is an inexorable change that challenges governments and societies in every developed country. Based on clinical and empirical data, social isolation is found to be prevalent among elderly people, and it has negative consequences on the elderly's psychological and physical health. Targeting social isolation has become a focus area for policy and practice. Evidence indicates that contemporary information and communication technologies (ICT) have the potential to prevent or reduce the social isolation of elderly people via various mechanisms.
Objective: This systematic review explored the effects of ICT interventions on reducing social isolation of the elderly.
Methods: Relevant electronic databases (PsycINFO, PubMed, MEDLINE, EBSCO, SSCI, Communication Studies: a SAGE Full-Text Collection, Communication & Mass Media Complete, Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Digital Library, and IEEE Xplore) were systematically searched using a unified strategy to identify quantitative and qualitative studies on the effectiveness of ICT-mediated social isolation interventions for elderly people published in English between 2002 and 2015. Narrative synthesis was performed to interpret the results of the identified studies, and their quality was also appraised.
Results: Twenty-five publications were included in the review. Four of them were evaluated as rigorous research. Most studies measured the effectiveness of ICT by measuring specific dimensions rather than social isolation in general. ICT use was consistently found to affect social support, social connectedness, and social isolation in general positively. The results for loneliness were inconclusive. Even though most were positive, some studies found a nonsignificant or negative impact. More importantly, the positive effect of ICT use on social connectedness and social support seemed to be short-term and did not last for more than six months after the intervention. The results for self-esteem and control over one's life were consistent but generally nonsignificant. ICT was found to alleviate the elderly's social isolation through four mechanisms: connecting to the outside world, gaining social support, engaging in activities of interests, and boosting self-confidence.
Conclusions: More well-designed studies that contain a minimum risk of research bias are needed to draw conclusions on the effectiveness of ICT interventions for elderly people in reducing their perceived social isolation as a multidimensional concept. The results of this review suggest that ICT could be an effective tool to tackle social isolation among the elderly. However, it is not suitable for every senior alike. Future research should identify who among elderly people can most benefit from ICT use in reducing social isolation. Research on other types of ICT (eg, mobile phone-based instant messaging apps) should be conducted to promote understanding and practice of ICT-based social-isolation interventions for elderly people.
Keywords: ICT intervention; elderly; social isolation.