During the Holidays, Using Technology to Connect Older Adults With Friends and Family

During the Holidays, Using Technology to Connect Older Adults With Friends and Family

During the Holidays, Using Technology to Connect Older Adults With Friends and Family

The holiday season is typically a time to reconnect with family and friends – however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many families could not be together last December. This new reality was a challenge for families nationwide, as traditional gatherings were replaced by video conferences and phone calls – older Americans especially, due to their increased vulnerability to the virus, were likely to feel increased isolation and loneliness during this time.

For older adults living in affordable housing communities, this struggle is compounded by the fact that many of them have limited access to and knowledge about the technologies that make connection easier, even from far apart.  

“The Lighthouse team knew we were in a unique position to help address the needs of older adults during this time,” said David Lindeman, director of Health at CITRIS. “We saw this as an opportunity to help out and also learn valuable information that could inform our project’s long-term plans.”

So for the 2020 holiday season, CITRIS, CDW Healthcare, Volara, and the Front Porch and Eskaton affordable housing communities in California came together to pilot a targeted distribution of 24 Google Nest Hub Max devices to residents and staff at the Vista Tower and Jefferson Manor housing communities. The Rapid Pilot Deployment was designed to test and improve larger plans for implementation of the Lighthouse for Older Adults pilot program, which seeks to empower older adults living in affordable housing to leverage technology to improve their health and well-being.

How It Worked

At the beginning of the Lighthouse project, the team conducted “empathy research” across all community residents to assess residents’ thoughts on their physical environment, their health and well-being, social connectedness, and comfort with technology. They then held focus groups with 29 residents and 13 staff at the Jefferson Manor and Vista Tower housing communities in a combination of video calls and in-person conversations, and found that the majority of residents have experienced increased feelings of isolation since the beginning of the pandemic. The team also demonstrated a few different technology options with participants, to better understand what residents look for and would benefit from in their technology and training.

After reviewing various technologies, the team selected Google Nest Hub Max for the rapid deployment program to address the immediate challenges of social isolation. The project used a platform solution that helped manage and configure the Google devices. The technology’s ease-of-use as well as its video and voice control functionality were key decision points that helped residents stay connected to friends, family, and caregivers.

Vista Tower Community Assistant Administrator, Juan Carlos, delivers the Google Nest Hub Max and Verizon MiFi Hotspot to a RPD participant’s door.

“We considered some laptops and tablets, which were powerful, but we didn’t want residents to get overwhelmed by how much they had to learn,” said Jennifer Lee, field project coordinator at Front Porch. “Most of our residents have smart phones but they often only know how to use them for one thing, like texting or YouTube – they haven’t been taught how to use a lot of technology.”

At both Vista Tower and Jefferson Manor, ten residents and one “staff champion” were identified to participate in the holiday program. Residents were deliberately selected to create a community of users who could support each other. Recognizing that affordable broadband access is a barrier, the project provided free broadband through personal hotspot devices for each participant.

As Christmas and New Year’s approached, the team deployed the Google Nest Hub Max and to all program participants. Participants were invited to a virtual training workshop to learn how to operate the devices, and had access to trained staff to help respond to questions and provide support as they began using the devices. Additionally, a team of volunteers (both from the RPD team and a group of college students) proactively made video calls to residents to ensure they were comfortable with using the technology.

Google Nest Hub Max’s and Verizon MiFi Hotspots being prepped at Vista Tower for in-person delivery 

“It is interesting to see how engaged the residents have been with our volunteers who are making regular check in calls on the new devices,” said Elaine Brattin, Strategy Planning Associate at Eskaton. “It has enlarged their connection to a virtual community and gives them something to look forward to.”

The Results

“This feels like waking up from a black-and-white world into a technicolor dream!” one resident said after using her new Google Nest Hub Max.

The rapid deployment was successful: residents were able to use their new devices effectively to connect with their loved ones in time for the holidays. “I’ve heard from several people that this made a huge difference – one resident, who was able to see all his great-grandchildren, said this was the best gift he ever opened,” said a staffer.

Residents in both Jefferson Manor and Vista Tower used the Google Nest Hub Max – the most popular use case at Vista Tower was for video calls, and at Jefferson Manor it was for playing music on YouTube.

Vista Tower’s Resident Service Director, Sara Choi, makes the first video call to a RPD participant

The pilot demonstration helped the team collect valuable data about what to replicate and improve. Language access continues to be a challenge, as the vast majority of residents do not speak English. The Google Nest Hub Max video interface was meant to help bridge that gap but additional language features are necessary to meet the needs of a diverse group of users. The team also learned it would be important to provide residents with more tips on how to use their new devices. One of the challenges, for example, was that many residents unplugged their devices because they were concerned about wasting energy.

Ultimately, this effort underscored the importance of the driving mission behind the Lighthouse project: both access to technology and hands-on, meaningful training on how to use it can empower older adults to live well and stay connected.

“Our residents were really craving that social, person-to-person aspect of the learning process,” said Lee. “When you add that personal touch, the impact transcends technology and becomes important to someone’s life.”

Photo credit: Davis Park/Front Porch


The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute drive interdisciplinary innovation for social good with faculty researchers and students from four University of California campuses – Berkeley, Davis, Merced, and Santa Cruz – along with public and private partners.

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