A $1.5 million donation from a couple with strong ties to USC will enable researchers at the USC School of Social Work to explore how technology can promote health among older adults in Taiwan.
Provided by USC Trustee Daniel M. Tsai and his wife, Irene Chen MA ’83, through their charitable foundation, the funding will support the efforts of Associate Professor Shinyi Wu and her research team to test whether tablet computers can be an effective medium to help prevent disease, decrease isolation, increase social engagement and improve general well-being among older adults with disabilities.
The traditional health education channels or methods are becoming less and less available.
“This gift is incredibly valuable and will enable innovative research that has the potential to address serious disparities in how vulnerable older adults receive care,” said Marilyn L. Flynn, dean of the USC School of Social Work. “We are fortunate to have such forward-thinking and caring donors who recognize the importance of this work.”
Researchers hope the project will demonstrate that older adults can embrace new ways to care for themselves in an increasingly technological era of health care.
“It’s a platform to close the digital divide and give them a tool to do better self-care,” said Wu, a researcher with the school’s Roybal Institute on Aging who will be working with Clinical Assistant Professor Hsin-Yi Hsiao and Professor Iris Chi, holder of the Chinese-American Golden Age Association/Frances Wu Chair for the Chinese Elderly.
Young volunteers from local high schools and universities in Taiwan will train approximately 500 older adults with diabetes how to use tablets to access health information and connect with sources of social support, such as friends and family.
“That can lessen the burden on primary care, reinforce the educational values that primary care providers are trying to deliver and build social support for these patients,” Wu said. “This will create a more healthy aging community.”
The project will compare outcomes for older adults who receive tablet training and technological support via the Intergenerational Mobile Technology Opportunities Program (IMTOP) to a comparison group that will receive standard health care.
Addressing care challenges
Researchers are hopeful that providing access to online resources and tools will help address critical issues faced by older individuals, including low awareness of serious health conditions such as diabetes, the most prevalent chronic illness in Taiwan.
Mutsu Hsu, who serves as vice president, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and professor of anthropology in the Department of Human Development at Tzu Chi University, said despite advances in medical care in Taiwan, many low-income aging adults have limited options in terms of community care and may not receive support from their children, who often lack the time or resources to provide intensive care to their parents.
“Some aboriginal village seniors with chronic disease struggled to deal with the disease on their own and didn’t receive the long-term care they needed,” Hsu said, describing results from a previous study. “In the end, they chose to commit suicide.”
In addition to helping older adults maintain their health, he said IMTOP may also bring a sense of security and reduce stress and anxiety related to not being able to contact family members or receive advice from health professionals.
A technological shift
Introducing older individuals to new technology is increasingly important, said Chi, who noted that more health care providers are shifting to an electronic model.
“The traditional health education channels or methods are becoming less and less available,” she said. “People don’t print booklets or information fact sheets any more. People just go online.”
Previous efforts to teach older adults how to use technology have been stymied by problems such as difficulty learning how to use a computer mouse, poor hand-eye coordination, or concerns about damaging or moving bulky equipment.
Tablets may present a solution to these issues, Chi said, because they are easier to carry and handle and allow users to easily enlarge font sizes or images. She described a pilot project at a retirement community in Los Angeles that compared the ease of using laptop computers versus tablets among older adults.
“We already see a huge difference,” she said. “It is more difficult for seniors to grasp everything we teach them on the laptops. With the tablets, it seems like it’s much easier to handle and just more user-friendly.”
A chance encounter
The IMTOP project has its origins in an unlikely encounter between Hsiao, then a doctoral student at the USC School of Social Work, and Tsai and Chen, who were on campus to attend orientation with their daughter, who joined two of her siblings in attending USC.
Hsiao, a native of Taiwan, recognized the couple and struck up a conversation. When they learned she was studying social work, Hsiao said they encouraged her to come to them with any future research proposals. Seven years later, Hsiao emailed Chen and pitched an idea about a caregiving training program for older adults with disabilities that ultimately evolved into the IMTOP model.
“When I learned that this project with a potential impact on Taiwan’s society was initiated by researchers in the School of Social Work at USC, as a Trojan family member I felt obligated to get involved,” Chen said.
The gift from Tsai and Chen significantly boosts the Campaign for the University of Southern California, a multiyear effort to raise $6 billion or more in private philanthropic funding to advance USC’s academic priorities and expand its positive impact on the community and world. Three years after its launch, the campaign has raised more than $3.5 billion.
Chen said she is hopeful the model can be translated to other older adult populations in other countries, a goal echoed by the research team.
“If this model is successful, we hope to disseminate it through other organizations in Taiwan,” Wu said. “We want to apply for government funding in the United States to test the model as well, and we may be able to do cross-national comparisons.”