As people grow older, it is common for them to experience medical conditions that accompany aging. Over time, adults may find that their eyesight is a little weaker, their joints are more swollen than usual, or they begin to misplace objects more frequently than before. Fortunately, these experiences are all normal parts of aging, and can be prepared for with the right help and resources.
What many older adults don’t realize however, is that caring for their emotional health can be just as important to maintaining their overall wellbeing. According to a U.S. Health and Retirement study, 43 percent of Americans aged 60 and older reported feeling lonely, while a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that nearly “one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated.”
Despite being related, loneliness and social isolation are not the same. Loneliness is a person’s subjective feelings toward their perceived lack of belonging and companionship. Social isolation is objective and is measured by factors such as the size of their social network, how frequently they communicate with members in their network, and more. For seniors and older adults, both loneliness and social isolation have been recognized as important public health issues, as they can lead to an increased risk for health problems such as heart disease, depression, and dementia, and stroke.
Overcoming social isolation and loneliness is not an easy task — especially during a global pandemic. With federal and state recommendations of social distancing and self-isolation, many older adults have been unable to see their friends and family this past year. Even with the rising number of vaccinations around the world, many seniors may not be ready to return back to pre-COVID world, making isolation and its health consequences a difficult problem to solve. Luckily, in today’s digital age, technology offers a powerful solution to help seniors feel less alone and detached from others. If you or your loved one is looking for better ways to connect with friends, family, and others, consider these 3 tech-related resources to help adults combat loneliness and social isolation:
Smartphones and other Smart Devices
With the onset of the global pandemic, many have turned to technology to maintain their social interactions — especially older adults. According to a 2021 study conducted by the AARP, 82 percent of people ages 50 and over reported relying on technology “to stay connected and in touch with family and friends.”
If you or your loved one does not own one already, consider purchasing a mobile smartphone such as an iPhone or Android. Unlike a landline phone or traditional cell phone, smartphones offer a number of intuitive ways to communicate with others beyond texting and calling. Most notably, mobile applications such as Zoom, Skype, and Facetime allow face-to-face video calling - a more interactive and intimate form of communication to share with others. While previously seen as too complicated by seniors, the AARP has found that in 2021, 70 percent of adults aged 50 and over are now using video calling, with one in three using video chat weekly.
Smartphones can also help account for the medical conditions that prevent seniors from connecting with others. Features like voice recognition and voice messaging can reduce joint pain and inflammation for seniors by replacing the physical movements of texting and dialing a number. Likewise, video calling can serve as a more effective form of communication for older adults experiencing hearing loss. As opposed to speaking and listening in a regular phone call, seniors with reduced hearing can better communicate in a video chat using non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, body language, and hand gestures. Furthermore, ridesharing mobile apps such as Uber and Lyft can aid seniors facing limited mobility by providing transportation to visit family, friends, and other loved ones who live away from their home.
Social Companion Robots
With the advancement of artificial intelligence, certain robots have been designed specifically to help seniors combat loneliness. While this industry is still relatively new, companion robots have shown promising results in the past - in 2018, New York State’s Office for the Aging found that, of the sixty residents who lived with a Joy for All robot, “seventy per cent of participants felt less lonely after one year.”
If you or a loved one is experiencing loneliness or social isolation, consider getting a companion robot. While they cannot fully replace or replicate human interaction, companion robots like ElliQ can help older adults keep sharp, connected, and engaged. Through machine learning and repeated interaction, ElliQ builds a personality profile of its owner to allow for more personalized communication. They are designed to initiate conversations, tell jokes, suggest new activities, respond to questions, and provide other mental enrichment activities. In addition, most companion robots are built to react to their environment. They are capable of responding to a senior’s voice, touch, and gaze, which can help convey presentness, and forge a sense of companionship and care.
Virtual Support Apps
If you or your loved one’s loneliness stems from a lack of social interactions with others, consider using a virtual support app. Depending on your needs and preferences, these apps can connect you to a trained professional, a random stranger, or an online support group. Whether it is a 5-minute call or a brief exchange of pleasantries, sharing a conversation with another person can go a long way to alleviating feelings of loneliness and isolation.
If you’re looking for a spontaneous one-on-one conversation, consider downloading Happy. On this app, you'll be connected to one of Happy’s “Support Givers,” a network of nurses, social workers, teachers, and other caregiving professionals. These support givers are available to talk 24/7, and are trained to be effective communicators and listeners. Of their past users, 93 percent of Happy’s callers reported feeling happier after speaking to a support giver. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a more collaborative experience, check out Circles. Unlike Happy, Circles matches a person to a network of 6 to 8 like minded individuals who “are going through similar challenges.” Through weekly meetings led by professional therapists, members of a “Circle” provide each other with mutual support and relief, helping promote social interaction, engagement, and resiliency.
If you or a loved one is considering aging in place, visit our Aging in Place tool that connects users with a comprehensive marketplace of services and benefits in your community.