This week we are sharing the final instalment on the success of the THAW project and those who gained their PhD through their excellent work on the project.

Dr David Clayton discusses his experience of the project and completing his PhD here at CATCH Sheffield:

My PhD project focused on loneliness and social isolation of older people and was undertaken by myself. When the THAW project began, little did I know how loneliness and social isolation would race up the policy agenda in the UK.  Loneliness and social isolation have become a ‘hot topic’. Although research into loneliness had been on-going since the 1940s in the UK, the death of MP Jo Cox in June 2016, who campaigned to end loneliness, saw cross-party agreement in the UK Parliament to tackle the issue in honour of her memory. In October 2018, the UK Government published its first loneliness strategy A connected society: A strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change. 

Within this strategy is an aim to harness the power of digital tools to connect people. The research I undertook directly addressed the issues faced by older people in this respect. It started with a central concern of a ‘loneliness paradox’ where despite the greater opportunities that exist for social contact using new digital technologies, loneliness appears to persist among older people. In order to address this concerned, I decided to undertake a multi-method study which explored how older people used new technologies to help with loneliness, how they felt about using the technology, what difference it made to them, and what their experience of loneliness was in the context of increasing use of new technology. Older people were defined as those 65 and over and new technologies were defined as computers, laptops, smartphones and tablets that combine both personal and mass broadcast communication. 

The fieldwork was undertaken between November 2015 and May 2016 using a purposive sampling procedure and older people were recruited by working with local charities, peer groups and social care organisations in the East Midlands of the UK. This included both urban and rural areas. I undertook visits to day services, lunch clubs, social groups and residential care homes to speak to older people about their experiences of using new technologies. My multi-methods approach involved a self-completion survey (both paper or online) and semi-structured interviews. The study found that new technologies were used by older people in new and positive ways to make social contact, but this technological contact did not always help with loneliness. Further exploration of the experiences of loneliness highlighted understanding loneliness and the use of new technologies in a multidimensional way through the idea of four loneliness modes (existential, comparison, loss and alienation) and three strategies for utilising new technologies based on social contact, distraction and therapeutic use. 

I finished the project in August 2018 and successfully defended my PhD thesis in February 2019. I am currently working to publish some of the findings. The impact of this study has however gone beyond the academic world. I presented some of my findings to one of the charities who supported his work; Enrych: Looking Beyond Disability, at an event to celebrate their 30th Anniversary. The charity has recently won funding from the National Lottery Community Fund to run a support service which can help older and disabled people get online and connect with family and friends (www.enrych.org.uk).  Their bid included data taken from my PhD thesis. I am pleased that my research has been able to support this bid and as a result will make an impact on the lives of older people in this area.