CompassionConnects: A case study exemplifying the use of technology to reduce isolation during COVID-19

Sorrentino’s Compassion House is a two-story house with a front porch and a landscaped front yard.

Photo provided by the Compassion House Foundation.

By Julia Craig

As we adjust to the new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic, with less contact in-person and increasingly more time attached to our screens, it’s undeniable that technology has played a significant role in easing this transition. From business meetings to online learning, and from remote doctors’ appointments to Friday night drinks via Zoom, technology has allowed us to continue working, submitting assignments, and socializing, all from our bedrooms. While it’s true that this may not be our ideal form of interaction, technology nonetheless has allowed us to continue functioning at some level amidst a global shut-down. But can technology truly substitute for in-person interaction, or will our new online world prove to be incredibly isolating?

This question has been on my mind as I complete my Stretch Experience for Compassion House Foundation (CHF) this summer. CHF is a non-profit organization in Edmonton that provides safe, convenient, and affordable accommodations at Sorrentino’s Compassion House for women who must travel to Edmonton for cancer treatment. The facility offers a warm, modern, and relaxing atmosphere where women can feel comfortable and cared for during a very stressful time in their lives. It has private rooms, transportation to and from the Cross-Cancer Institute, exercise and entertainment facilities, and a communal kitchen where women can cook meals together. But more than providing shelter, CHF serves to facilitate connection and reduce the feelings of isolation that can accompany a cancer diagnosis. During their time at the house, women develop relationships with other women facing a similar journey, and they can share resources, ask vulnerable questions, and uplift each other. Many of the women who stay at Sorrentino’s Compassion House come from rural Alberta, and once they finish their multi week cancer treatment in Edmonton, they return home to communities that often lack cancer support services. To combat this problem and continue supporting women after they leave the house, my job this summer is to help develop the CompassionConnects program. CompassionConnects will be an interactive online website offering accessible blog posts, webinars, videos, publications from health professionals, support groups, and more. Our goal is to support mental health and wellness by creating a supportive and understanding community online where CHF women can share stories, form connections, and feel less alone as they interact with other women from CHF going through similar struggles.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, where social distancing requirements lead to increased levels of isolation, CompassionConnects is a timely example of how technology can be used to foster a sense of community and maintain social connectedness across distance. While it’s financially implausible for CHF to implement cancer support facilities in each Alberta town, by using technology, CHF can stay in contact and help support women, no matter how far away they live.

Research also highlights the important role technology can play in reducing isolation amongst the elderly ⏤ a population that, similar to people fighting cancer, is at high risk for experiencing social isolation. These studies have found that the use of social networking, videoconferencing, digital gaming, internet, and communication technologies generally leads to increased feelings of connectedness and reduced isolation (Chen & Schulz, 2016; Khosravi, Rezvani, & Wiewiora, 2016; Oliver, Demiris, & Hensel, 2006). Technology can play an important role in allowing elderly persons to stay in contact with family and friends across the globe.

On the other hand, and as we might surmise from the nastiness on social media, other studies have shown that technology can actually increase feelings of isolation. For example, Primack et al. (2017) found that using social media for two or more hours a day, compared to less than 30 minutes a day, doubled the odds of perceived social isolation among young adults. Similarly, Sherman, Michikyan, & Greenfield (2013) found that in-person communication is superior to video chat, audio chat, and text messaging, particularly in fostering emotional connection. Ultimately, I think the answer is moderation. Technology is not and should not be considered a substitution for face-to-face interaction. In-person contact is necessary for our emotional and social well-being. However, when in-person contact is not possible due to geographical isolation or social distancing, technology offers a valuable solution that can foster, rather than hinder, social connectedness.

For the women of the CHF, CompassionConnects provides an opportunity to stay connected with a community of individuals who deeply understand the struggles they are facing. For others, technology may provide the means by which they stay in contact with their relatives who live far away. For businesses and educational institutions, as they adjust to meet physical distancing requirements, technology can provide the opportunity to stay in contact and have virtual conversations with co-workers and students. Face-to-face communication is preferable to connecting online, but when it is not possible due to public health recommendations, or, in the case of rural Albertans, distance from services, using technology to communicate online is the next best thing. By finding innovative ways to use technology and adapting existing programs into an online format, we can retain some level of connectedness in our new, socially distanced world.

Julia is an undergraduate neuroscience student in the Faculty of Science and a PLLC scholar. This was originally published as an article in PLLC’s leadership & COVID-19 series.


References

Chen, Y. R., & Schulz, P. J. (2016). The effect of information communication technology interventions on reducing social isolation in the elderly: A systematic review. J Med Internet Res, 18(1), e18. doi:10.2196/jmir.4596

Khosravi, P., Rezvani, A., & Wiewiora, A. (2016). The impact of technology on older adults’ social isolation. Computers in Human Behavior, 63, 594-603.doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.05.092

Primack, B. A., Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Whaite, E. O., Lin, L. Y., Rosen, D., et al. (2017). Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 53(1), 1-8. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.010

Sherman, L. E., Michikyan, M., & Greenfield, P. M. (2013). The effects of text, audio, video, and in-person communication on bonding between friends. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 7(2), Article 3. doi:10.5817/CP2013-2-3

Oliver, D. P., Demiris, G., & Hensel, B. (2006). A promising technology to reduce social isolation of nursing home residents. Journal of Nursing Care Quality: October-December 2006, 21(4), 302-305.

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