Thinking beyond health apps – by Pauline Garvey
By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 13 April 2018
Author: Pauline Garvey
I recently came across an app for survivors of breast cancer. It allows its users to calculate their body-mass index, access nutritional advice, read recipes, set exercise goals and make donations towards cancer research. The app provides a fairly comprehensive guide to health management, but I wonder if it could offer more. Increasingly, the promise of health comes in a surprising variety of packages, and these often exceed a solitary pursuit of nutrition and exercise advice.
The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) led by Trinity College Dublin examines the social, economic, and health circumstances of over 8,000 people aged 50 years and older, resident in Ireland. Researchers have found that instead of later years being a time of decline and dependency, older adults make a valuable contribution to society, with many active in the lives of their families and in their communities. The TILDA report suggests, for example, that volunteering is life enhancing as is regular social participation in sports and social clubs. Overall, it finds 60% of adults aged 54 years and over take part in active and social leisure activities at least once per week while 47% participated in at least one of these organised groups at least once per week.
In my fieldwork site, there are groups that meet weekly to knit and chat while sharing coffee and cake. Other groups swim in the sea, go to church, go for bracing walks or gather to engage in litter picks. Many research participants talk of these activities as both building community and enhancing health, activities that are usually moderated through smartphone apps. Some activities that do not seem, on first glance, to be related to health come to be framed as such. For example, one participant in a craft group shared a post called ‘The Health Benefits of Knitting’ (Brody 2016) which argued that the repetitive work of knitting reduces the stress hormone cortisol. Are people joining these groups for purposes of health or fun or ‘community-building’ or for other reasons altogether? Are these distinctions blurred or even relevant for participants? Similarly, WhatsApp is integral to the moderation of these groups, not only in how groups are made but in the types of sociality that they engender, such as in the frequency of online interactions. Continuous online conversations that research participants have on WhatsApp can be experienced as a delight or disappointment, but either way have been described to me as new. These are some of the issues that I’m pursuing in my on-going research.
Breast Cancer Survivor App developed by Professor M. Kell, Mater Hospital, Dublin, Ireland, see https://www.materfoundation.ie/news/improving-care-breast-cancer-patients-mater/
Brody, J. E 25/01/2016 ‘The Health Benefits of Knitting’, The New York Times, available online at https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/25/the-health-benefits-of-knitting/
The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), 11/10/2017 Trinity College Dublin, available online https://tilda.tcd.ie/news-events/2017/1702-w3-key-findings/