Thoughts on experiences of social isolation and loneliness for the Plymouth Health and Care Digital Citizen Working Group by Karen Pilkington
As Health and Statutory services become more and more digitalised to support their efforts to offer streamlined, efficient and supportive services for people, it is well recognised that Digital Exclusion is a problem that needs urgent attention.
Digital Exclusion has conventionally been thought of as a lack of ability to navigate online either through no access to laptop, tablet or smartphone, lack of affordability of data or wifi services, or lack of confidence in using.
All of the above are well supported to enable citizens to navigate an increasingly digital world – free data sims, support from banks and mobile companies, free courses, digital friends and many families buying tablets and mobiles for elderly relatives. Data inclusion is not suffering from a lack of time, energy or money!
What Belong in Plymouth has identified is what happens when people feel excluded from others through a wide variety of factors that combine to create what can feel like impossible barriers for people to overcome.
This broader thinking around the complex causes of social isolation and loneliness can perhaps influence how we tackle digital inclusion in the future, not just as a complicated issue to be fixed by services, but a complex issue that requires a more thoughtful approach.
Through its Community Research Project, Belong in Plymouth collects intimate recordings of people talking about their lived experiences of what makes it harder or easier to feel like they belong in Plymouth. It then transcribes these conversations, pulls out anonymised fragments which are coded (in a collaborative process working with story tellers, community researchers, programme supporters and academics) into factors of social isolation. Factors can go up and down so small interventions can be tested. For example, we have identified a factor called ‘Loose Connections and Bumping’ so could test if a seat beside a bus stop would increase the bumping space for community members to feel more connected?
We are in the process of mapping these fragments and factors Belong in Plymouth Community Conversations
As you can see we have collected a bit of detail directly relating to digital exclusion and pulled out factors such as ‘Awareness of Online Safety’, ‘Successful Use of Technology’, ‘Confidence using Technology’ and ‘Access to Information’.
Factors link back to fragments of conversations which carry inherent validity as they explain what happened to someone or how they feel.
As we develop the site we hope it makes for enjoyable and thoughtful browsing, reading about real people in Plymouth and thinking about complexity rather than top down solutions.
We have started hosting open workshops for commissioners, managers, practitioners, community researchers and citizens to come together and use these factors to think collaboratively, identify gaps, explore solutions: but we are stressing that this process is not to get to the tick box solutions that pervade our working practices, “How can we solve digital exclusion in a three point plan within the minimum use of our stretched resources?”
Case Study to show complexity
R has just reached pension age. He had survived on a very small army pension and housing support for decades, having been unable to find a job. He is an intelligent man and had started a degree in book keeping as he was being invalided out of the army for suspected epilepsy.
Undiagnosed poor mental health and self-medication on cheap cider as well as living in poverty meant that when things broke, including himself, he just didn’t get them fixed. That included a phone, TV and although he had always intended to get himself a computer, it just never happened.
His only support is a weekly visit to a drop in centre, where he could access the internet, and whose staff did manage to get him a working phone. However R has not been able to move forward with either of these. He could use them to find more groups, seek out veteran support and camaraderie, make appointments with a GP/optician/audiologist – all the people who could improve his quality of life – but he seems unable to, even with support.
He feels deeply, profoundly, excluded and at odds with life going on around him. This fuels his deep frustration about automated services, online appointments, not being able to talk to a human. So he doesn’t try. His problem is not that he can’t access technology but that he chooses not to because of a much wider variety of factors..
“Ability to join in”
“Amount of life change”
“Being able to use skills and strengths”
“Fear of entering the unknown”
“Feeling part of it”
In R’s case the community hub that he is working with is slowly addressing these factors, and inviting him to become part of discussion groups as a citizen; acknowledging he is an expert in his own lived experience and he can meaningfully contribute in a room full of equity and collaboration - equals rather than helpers and helped.
The process is slow, building trusted relationships one at a time, but it does feel like it has merit.
It could be that we end up with a more meaningful pathway to true inclusion of all types including digital.