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Scholar Spotlight: Shao-Yun Chien

Shao-Yun Chien is a UW School of Nursing PhD in Nursing Science candidate and one of the de Tornyay Center for Healthy Aging’s 2023-2024 Healthy Aging Scholars. Her dissertation is on “Developing a Culturally Sensitive Web-based Discussion Platform to Reduce Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Older Chinese Immigrants.” Her faculty mentor is Oleg Zaslavsky.

Why did you choose nursing?

I grew up in a family where many members were part of the healthcare industry, and they were always eager to help others. I remember my father often rushing to the hospital in the middle of the night to take care of patients.

In addition, I have always been close to my grandparents, and enjoy conversing with seniors because they have so many stories and rich life experience to share. In high school, my grandfather fell ill and was hospitalized. I felt helpless and unsure about what I could do to ease his pain and improve his condition. This motivated me to acquire knowledge and skills in nursing, to not only help him alleviate pain, but to also maintain a better quality of life.

Overall, I think healthcare is crucial for everyone from birth to the end of life. Learning nursing can help others as well as oneself. So I chose nursing.

What interested you about healthy aging in particular?

Healthy aging fascinates me because it’s a multi-faceted challenge that combines the physical, mental, and social. As the global population ages, understanding how to maintain and improve the quality of life for older adults is becoming increasingly important. I’m particularly interested in how we can use innovative interventions like technology to support the mental and physical health of the elderly to ensure they lead fulfilling and independent lives.

After I graduated from university, I worked as a nurse at a medical center in Taiwan, and approximately 80% of patients in my ward were older adults. It’s common to see patients distressed when their condition doesn’t improve as they expected after acute care and treatment. The medical personnel are usually focused on treating physical symptoms and often overlook the psychological aspects.

I wanted to enhance my understanding of mental health and psychiatric nursing in order to solve this issue. So I went on to study at the UCSF psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner program, concentrating on the psychological well-being of older adults.

You mentioned that you’re interested in technological interventions for older adults. What interests you about the technology interventions?

Because there is an important issue that’s called a digital divide. So many older adults struggle with using technology due to fear or aging, like visual impairments or hearing impairments, or other illnesses like depression or dementia. They’re not able to use technology products like younger generations. So they’re missing out on the convenience brought by technological advancement. I think it’s important to bridge this gap to increase the usability of technology for this population.

What is your project as a de Tornyay Center healthy aging scholar?

My project is called “Developing a culturally sensitive web based discussion platform to reduce social isolation and loneliness among older Chinese immigrants.”

I am leading this research with a focus on designing an online community that is culturally appropriate to the needs of older Chinese immigrants. The platform aims to mitigate and to reduce the feelings of loneliness and social isolation that are prevalent in this demographic.

The intervention is modeled on a virtual online community for the elderly, which was abbreviated VOCALE, developed by Dr. Annie Chen and Dr. Oleg Zaslavsky. I modified it according to the aim of this study. The revised version is named VOCALE older Chinese immigrants — VOCALE OCI.

This intervention, VOCALE OCI, is an online support group on an open access platform designed to promote problem solving and health management strategies in older adults. The participants are encouraged to share their age-related experience and management strategies with others in weekly discussions.

How did you first get involved in the project?

My involvement in this field began with my volunteer work at a senior center in Seattle. I had the opportunity to interact with and chat with several older adults. In that senior center, most of the participants are people with low English proficiency. One of the prominent issues they shared with me was the feeling of loneliness and social isolation, such as cultural and linguistic barriers, and also transportation difficulties.

What they told me is that they feel they have no eyes, no ears, and no feet. Because they cannot understand the language, they cannot see the signs. Or even if they go out to shop, if they have questions, they cannot ask the staff. And they don’t have feet because some of them do not know how to drive and don’t know how to even take the bus. And because of those disadvantages, they’re kind of isolated.

The situation was also exacerbated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even now, some seniors also share that they are fearful of going out due to the risk of infection, so some of them still stay at home, and if they want to join any activity they would choose an online version.

This experience deeply impacted me and motivated me to address these issues, leading to my current research project.

Has there been anything that surprised you so far while working on this project?

I feel like the resilience and potential of the elderly might actually be beyond what we imagine. The seniors I’ve met (my research participants) have really inspired me. Initially, I thought my research was all about creating an online community to help them, but they also enriched my thinking and life with broader perspectives and experiences, which has been incredibly rewarding and precious to me.

I’ve discovered the diversity among the elderly; each of them is like a rich book with so much to reflect on and learn from. Despite the many difficulties and obstacles they faced in their migration process and adaptation, the vitality they’ve shown throughout this journey has been a huge inspiration. I believe this has been a very valuable and profound learning experience.

Having studied abroad myself, I’ve had similar experiences, but they’ve faced many more challenges and difficulties. I really admire the wisdom of the elders, and it makes me think we should be more humble in understanding and comprehending the life experiences of different people, respecting everyone’s thoughts and individuality.