By the end of this session you should be able to:
More than ever, older persons must be able to use digital technologies effectively.
Not only for their own health and welfare, but also to keep in touch with family members, keep up to date with the latest information and advice, and to generally help overcome the feeling of being isolated.
Social inclusion and participation in various activities enables older people to grasp opportunities to be active and breaks down barriers they face in their everyday lives, such as cognitive impairment and depression, a lack of stimulation and social interaction, lethargy, boredom, depression, and loneliness.
Loneliness and social exclusion vs communication
Loneliness and social isolation are significant predictors of mortality, and they are associated with poorer physical and mental health. For instance, loneliness is associated with poorer cardiovascular health, lower cognitive function, depression, anxiety, suicide ideation, higher psychological distress, lower self-esteem, sleep and stress problems, and health behaviors such as lower physical activity. In turn, social isolation is associated with lower self-rated physical health, lower health-related quality of life and health status, worse cardiovascular and mental health, and increased vulnerability to dementia. Therefore, it is evident that solutions to combat both circumstances are needed.
Technology can be a very effective tool in reducing social isolation and enhancing connectedness, especially among senior citizens. The main ways in which technology help to expand social capital is by increasing communication and connectivity between friends, family, and caregivers. Technology also allows for and embraces an intergenerational approach to building connectedness. There are various technologies that have been shown to impact levels of social isolation. These include mobile technologies, internet and communication technologies (ICTs), videoconferencing, digital games, mobility tools, and social networking sites (SNS). The majority of research conducted on the topic demonstrates that technologies, particularly those that enhance communication, do lead to higher levels of connectedness and decreased feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression.
Communication with other humans
Many relevant studies endorse the social connectedness and importance of engaging with family and friends whereby information technology can be of huge assistance. The demographic shift caused by the worldwide growth of the older population coincides with the dramatically alteration and redefinition of how people communicate and relate to each other. For the older population, this technological revolution can widen the generational gap and exacerbate feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety and contribute to adjustment disorders. However, several studies indicate that bringing information and communication technologies (ICTs) to the older persons can have a significant positive influence on this population. Some authors have even presented it as the only possibility for alleviating isolation, loneliness and alienation in certain older groups. Nevertheless, concurrently, it is known that a big part of older people is unable to follow this development, because of mental challenges, negative predisposition towards new technologies, communication or language problems or digital literacy problems.
In another aspect, according to most articles, ICT could enhance older adults’ communication and interaction with health professionals and others. For instance, using an app is usually described by the older adults as a new way to communicate with nurses enabling them to report their health concerns in more detail. Additionally, interactions with healthcare professionals via ICT are regarded as especially valuable by persons living in rural areas. Communicating via ICT for social contacts is also described as an important aspect, not least for people with health issues and reduced mobility. Usually, older adults prefer to use service function that support social interactions with family and friends as part of the decision-making process with regard to health and social care services.
Communication with machines
Previous reviews have also generally reflected the effectiveness of social robots in elderly care, including studies that address loneliness or social isolation, and the influence of smart houses on older adults’ quality of life, including their effect on social isolation. Recently, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has also been a stream of studies from different fields reviewing and considering the importance and possibilities of robots and computer agents in alleviating loneliness.
The successfully employed social robots (Paro, AIBO, NAO, MARIO, temi, and animatronic or robotic pets) are all designed to engage with the user, thus providing means for interaction with the device itself. MARIO and temi robots also provide means for video communication with other people as a central feature besides speech, activity, and entertainment capabilities. In an ambient activity stimulating system, a virtual coach gives recommendations to the user based on the planned activities for the day and the data from an activity sensor. The smart home solution also interacts with the user via messages.
ICT solutions such as smart homes can help predict and detect loneliness and social isolation, and technologies such as robotic pets and some other social robots can help alleviate loneliness to some extent.
Some forms of physical ICT hold promising value in alleviating older adults’ loneliness. Significant positive results were obtained in interventions using social robots, an ambient activity system that includes an activity sensor, and a smart home solution. A common feature of these solutions is that they are able to interact with the user in one way or another, which may have served as the key to their success by fostering reciprocity between the device and the user, thus providing increased social contact opportunities for older adults.