Skip to main content

Aneurin Bevan University Health Board offers digital tools to tackle isolation and loneliness

Using a digital companions model, DCW trained members of an existing volunteer outreach network with easy-to-use resources, content and tools to enhance their visits.

Quick read

Digital Communities Wales worked with a Primary Care Team at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board (ABUHB) to offer digital tools to support volunteers tackling isolation and loneliness.

Using a digital companions model DCW, trained members of an existing volunteer outreach network with easy-to-use resources, content and tools to enhance their visits.

Focusing on the content, rather than the digital skills, gave the volunteers greater confidence in using the technology – in this case via tablets – and it has become a valuable tool in all of their interactions.

ABUHB has seen knock-on benefits in its own team’s adoption of technology, digital skills and confidence in deploying online tools and resources.

What was the issue that needed to be addressed?

One of the challenges to increasing the online population is that generally, the people who are interested have by now already engaged.

This is backed up by research from Lloyds Bank, which in 2019 showed that the main reason people remain offline is lack of interest. According to its Consumer Digital Index, three-quarters of the offline population lacks the motivation to investigate what the internet has to offer.

Costs aside, the report says the main things that would engage these people to get online are: if websites were easier to understand; overcoming fears about security; and getting support from someone to help.

All of these could be supported by offering people someone to be by their side to guide them through the first steps of getting online.

What was the intervention and how did it work?

Digital Communities Wales worked with Aneurin Bevan University Health Board (ABUHB) to develop a Digital Companions model which would focus on giving people a positive, informal first experience of going online.

ABUHB has an existing extensive network of befriending volunteers called Ffrind i Me / Friend of Mine built into its secondary care models to help tackle issues of loneliness and isolation.

This meant training and structures were already in place which could be used to develop a network of digital companions. It also meant that there were existing, trusted relationships between the Ffrind i Me volunteers and the people that they spent time with.

Companions were given a straightforward four-step package of training to cover the skills and qualities they would need. This included finding areas of shared interest, developing those interests through digital tools and recommending resources to keep the interest going in the future. They were also given tablets to use on their visits.

The training emphasised the importance of person-centred, one-to-one support – and stressed to the companions that they did not need to be a ‘tech expert’ to be able to help.

Volunteers spend time with a wide range of people – for example, those who are house-bound, people with learning difficulties – providing one-to-one support. They find out about a person’s interests, hobbies, family and history, building up a personal picture which then enables them to use a tablet to share content tailored to those interests.

“Initially, we thought we’d be helping people to get online themselves, but as the project has developed, we’re finding that the volunteers are using their tablets more naturally as a tool during the visit – for example, to prompt a conversation or just do a bit of window shopping. It’s great for giving people a bit of escapism within the safety of their own homes. And that’s great for mental health and well-being.”

Claire Jordan, Aneurin Bevan UHB – Patient Centred Care Team

Volunteers also introduced online resources such as BBC RemArc, content from the BBC Archives, which has been selected to support reminiscence therapy.

Over time, as confidence increases, the scope of the content being shared can be widened out to take in relevant information to support health and wellbeing.

What was the impact of the intervention?

  • Key to making the programme work was the existing network of volunteers. They were naturally experienced at showing empathy and knew the people they were helping so made the content relevant to the individual.
  • By focusing on the content, rather than trying to teach the technology, they were able to use the digital platforms for activities which directly benefited people’s wellbeing.

“People are indirectly getting familiar with using the technology through use, it’s such a versatile resource for the volunteers to be able to show pictures and films or find music.”

Claire Jordan, Aneurin Bevan UHB – Patient Centred Care Team

  • All of the staff in the unit were trained by Digital Communities Wales alongside the volunteers – some are themselves companions. It was important that everyone involved was able to talk knowledgeably about the project.
  • The project is now being rolled out more widely, with DCW working with other community groups who also have established relationships with potential beneficiaries e.g. Macmillan Nurses, RVS, Merched y Wawr, WI and Men’s Sheds.
  • The digital companions programme was one of the Bevan Commission’s Bevan Exemplar projects.

What has been the outcome in terms of new skills, better health and enhanced well-being?

  • The interactions between volunteers and the people they support have become richer and more varied thanks to the use of tablets and digital content.
  • Working together, they have been able to share reminiscences, learn more about opportunities to socialise locally, enjoy some virtual reality escapism or just complete necessary admin and errands.
  • The nursing team and volunteers have all reported increased confidence in using IT and have increased the use of digital tools in their wider work, for example in using Skype consultations.

“People who’ve used the tablets, for example, to go on virtual visits around local gardens together have found that really relaxing. Another lady’s cat had recently died so the volunteer helped her to use the tablet to find a new one who now lives with her – that’s so important for her well-being.”

Claire Jordan, Aneurin Bevan UHB – Patient Centred Care Team

Having the backing of Digital Communities Wales has also given the team the confidence to try out new approaches, knowing that they have access to support and advice.

 What can we learn that could be repeatable, transferable or scalable?

Use an existing trusted network

  • It’s much easier to deliver this intervention where there is an existing volunteer infrastructure
  • The trust and strong relationship between volunteers and those they help can be used to reassure and quell any fears around trying something new
  • It creates the feeling of a safe, secure environment

Keep training simple

  • Focus on the application of technology, not on the technology itself
  • Make it a tool in the toolbox for building relationships and looking after people mental well-being

Research shows digitally disengaged people want support from a familiar face

  • Using volunteer networks means people are working one-to-one
  • Existing relationships can help to make the content being used more personal

Train the whole team

  • Even if they’re not directly delivering, it’s important that everyone can talk with knowledge and enthusiasm about the project
  • Improving the overall digital confidence of the team can lead to greater adoption of beneficial technology in other settings and situations

Take time and persevere

  • This project showed the value of ongoing, one-to-one support
  • In some cases people did start to go online more on their own and buy new devices – but this was more about using digital tools to enhance relationships and well-being.