Increasing prosocial behaviour in community-dwelling older adults through phone visiting programs: A rapid systematic review

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About the project

Canadian older adults, over age 65, report rates of loneliness second only to those aged 18-25 (Statistics Canada, 2021). In an attempt to reduce loneliness, phone visiting programs for older adults have been implemented by several organizations worldwide; however, there is a lack of agreement on the optimal duration, frequency and effectiveness of these phone interventions.

This rapid systematic review aimed to examine existing literature on phone visiting programs for community-dwelling older adults and explored three specific outcomes: 1) loneliness, 2) mood, and/or 3) experience of the phone program. Articles were included if they were: 1) a primary source qualitative or quantitative research study, 2) the phenomenon of interest was a social phone program, 3) the population was adults 60 years or older living independently, and 4) one of the targeted outcomes was examined. Articles were excluded if they did not meet the above criteria or if the phone program was in a group, used video calling, or was for health checks, cognitive behavioural therapy, or health education. Articles were considered from any date range, any language and any country.

A peer-reviewed librarian-led search was completed, revealing a total of 8741 articles. Two reviewers completed each round of screening, evaluation and data abstraction. Eleven articles which met all of the inclusion criteria were included in the final analysis.

Key findings

  • Limited published studies of one-to-one telephone programs for socialization purposes exist; however, there are multiple organizations providing phone visiting programs.
  • Phone programs found in the literature and on organizational websites are being offered in a variety of ways. The most common frequency is once per week although some phone calls were daily or at unspecified intervals. Duration of phone calls ranged from one to170 minutes with the majority of calls lasting between 10 and 30 minutes. Study time frames lasted anywhere from four weeks to one year. The phone calls are almost exclusively conducted by volunteers or students with a few exceptions that used paid staff members.
  • Qualitative and anecdotal evidence supports the use of phone visiting programs for older adults in order to reduce loneliness, improve their lives and enhance their overall mood. Older adults looked forward to scheduled phone calls and appreciated knowing that there was someone they could talk to as needed.
  • Several individual quantitative studies suggested that there may be improvements in loneliness, depression, stress and anxiety. Meta-analysis was only conclusive in relation to phone programs and loneliness.
  • Meta-analysis showed a significant true effect between the use of phone programs and decrease in loneliness.
  • There was also evidence to suggest that phone programs reduced depression based on a positive observed effect size; however, true effects estimated by meta-analysis were inconclusive.
  • There are too few studies to make any certain statistical conclusions about stress or anxiety.
  • Phone programs are offered with various durations and frequencies but there is not enough evidence to determine optimal phone program implementation.
  • Although older adults have reported improvements in their lives due to phone visiting programs, there have not been enough published studies to find statistically significant conclusions.

Policy implications

  • Phone programs should be expanded to ensure that older adults who may be experiencing loneliness and social isolation have the option to participate.
  • Phone programs are currently being provided by researchers and a variety of profit and not-for-profit organizations. Best practice for phone programs needs to be determined and developed into a virtual package to help optimize existing phone programs and support the creation of new phone visiting programs.
  • Further quantitative and qualitative research is needed to support or disprove the findings that show value in phone visiting programs.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Heather J. Nelson, principal investigator, Faculty of Nursing, University of Regina:

Erin Langman, Dalhousie University:

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