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Richard Ratcliffe, soon to be 91, has had his life transformed over the past three years thanks to Connections, an AGE-WELL-supported communications platform designed to prevent social isolation by keeping older adults in contact with family and friends.

Life had become lonely for the war veteran and career naval officer because of profound hearing loss from “being a little too close to gunfire in Korea. It’s a real social liability, so the tendency is to stay out of the conversation and that’s not good,” says Ratcliffe.

Things changed when Ratcliffe began using Connections, an easy-to-learn platform that features pictures of the user’s contacts and simple icons to access the different types of messaging.

Richard Ratcliffe with daughter, Steph Gagne.   Photo: John Hryniuk

“My father is no longer alone. Connections has bridged so many gaps, he now shares pictures, videos, audio and text messages with family and friends on a daily basis,” says Ratcliffe’s daughter Steph Gagne. “Words cannot express my gratitude for the ease of this program achieving something I never could.”

Connections was developed for use on an iPad. The program helps to re-engage those who have vision, hearing, motor skill challenges and other barriers that isolate them from the people and services they need. It requires minimal training to use—even for older adults with no computer experience.

The Famli.net team

The software program was launched by the startup Famli.net and, to date, has been used by more than 100 residents at Sunnybrook Veterans Centre and a Revera retirement residence in Toronto.

“I’d be lost without it. It opened up a whole new world,” says Ratcliffe, a resident at Sunnybrook.

He exchanges messages with Gagne “many, many times during the day” and has about 50 contacts including his three children, five grandchildren, other family members, friends and business associates from Winnipeg to Cape Breton. Ratcliffe even uses the program to conduct business inhouse as president of the Sunnybrook Veteran Residents’ Council.

Using Connections, Ratcliffe sang “Danny Boy” and delivered it to his granddaughter while she was in a pub in Ireland having a Guinness. When she trained to be a minister and was working on her first sermons, she recorded and sent them to her grandfather.

For their 30th wedding anniversary, Gagne and her husband took a two-week trip to England. “What gave me comfort in leaving was knowing that I could still correspond with my dad through Connections.”

“I felt like I was there with them,” says Ratcliffe. “Steph was sending me pictures from Trafalgar Square, Greenwich, Stonehenge, Oxford, all kinds of places in England that I had been myself. It was a great reminiscence.”

Ratcliffe and Gagne look forward to seeing Connections used by older adults everywhere who could benefit from the easy-to-use communications tool. Famli.net is in discussions to expand its clientele to other veterans’ hospitals, retirement homes and seniors’ organizations in Canada, and plans to launch a multi-platform version of Connections not only in Canada, but in Singapore through several organizations that provide community care to seniors.

“Connections opened up horizons for my dad. He’s now challenged and stimulated in a way that he hadn’t been for a long time,” says Gagne. “It has brightened his world.”

Connections was developed by TAGlab at the University of Toronto. TAGlab and Famli.net have deep roots at AGE-WELL as they are funded through the network’s Core Research Program. AGE-WELL is Canada’s Technology and Aging Network.

Originally published at AGE-WELL.