CAREER: Advancing Online Social Support for Older Adults with Disabilities

Project: Research project

Project Details


The goal of this research program is to develop a conceptual and technical framework for enabling and studying online social support for older adults with severe late-life disabilities. Social computing has changed how people communicate to such a degree that exclusion from online experiences can mean exclusion from critical aspects of society, and older adults are particularly vulnerable to such exclusion. While many people age without significant disability, one-in-four Americans age 65 and older has a severe disability. Contact with one's social support network becomes increasingly important as health declines, and in parallel, chronic health conditions and associated disability make staying connected difficult. A promising approach to this emerging problem is the PI’s concept of hybrid social computing, in which familiar offline interfaces are integrated with dynamic online systems. The proposed framework will address significant challenges of connecting familiar, low-fidelity interfaces with dynamic online systems while harnessing support networks to enable and protect users online. The proposed work focuses on two pervasive conditions among older adults: late-life vision impairments and late-life speech-language impairments. Extending an active program of research, the PI will (1) use field research methods to understand the needs and challenges around online interaction for the two populations of study, (2) develop three innovative prototypes to instantiate this framework, and (3) rigorously evaluate the effects of these new tools through usability and field studies. The integrated education plan involves: (1) developing a community-based mentorship program, which will extend (2) a new undergraduate curriculum on design, computing, and disability, and (3) leading academic and community workshops on accessible social computing. Intellectual Merit: The field of human-computer interaction has yet to address the complexities of designing online social technologies for older adults with severe late-life disability -- a challenging problem that will grow in importance and scale with future generations. The proposed work will contribute: (1) a conceptual and technical framework for connecting familiar communication interfaces with dynamic online systems while enabling and protecting users; (2) new knowledge of the needs and challenges around online interaction in the context of late-life disability, providing the foundation for the proposed framework through design guidelines and a taxonomy; (3) three innovative hybrid social computing applications, which will further refine this framework and introduce new techniques for accessible online interaction; and (4) empirical and theoretical understandings of online communication for two understudied populations, including evidence of how online interaction affects social well-being. The proposed framework is potentially transformative in that it enables new forms of online interaction, making it possible to examine phenomena of online behavior with entirely new demographics. The rapid evolution of social computing presents major research challenges for many disciplines. This research contributes new knowledge, new tools, and a new framework to address interdisciplinary challenges across computer science, communication studies, and gerontology. Broader Impacts of the Proposed Research: Absent online tools for older adults with severe late-life disabilities, we are unable to study the effects of online interaction for those who may benefit most, and the benefits may be vast. S
Effective start/end date2/1/166/30/20


  • National Science Foundation (IIS‐1551574-004)


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