How technology could be the solution for combating loneliness in the elderly generation
Across the world, loneliness is clearly becoming more visible, and arguably more prevalent overall.
For many of us, we are just beginning to come out of a very isolating and stressful period—however, for many others around the globe, communities, families, and friends remain disconnected and at risk of sickness and mental health challenges. Over the past year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed all of the loneliness which existed pre-2020, but now loneliness is finally receiving the attention it deserves.
While technology has often been viewed as the reason for an increasingly lonely generation, many held on to it as a lifeline during the pandemic to connect with loved ones during lockdowns and limited travel. Technology can have its flaws for its ability to trap and transport us into a different world through the small screen of a laptop or mobile device, and away from meaningful interactions. But it also has many advantages and great power to connect us in ways that wouldn’t have been possible even just 15 years ago.
In particular, technology is empowering the elderly population to connect with dispersed families, those unable to visit due to health risks, and even just to talk. Many senior people live alone or separated from loved ones, and we know this can make them more prone to feeling lonely and disconnected.
In recognition of these challenges and opportunities, we spoke with Luca Rado, the co-founder of The Live In Care Company, a UK-based elderly care provider, to talk about loneliness in the elderly population. At HearMe, we know that 92% of our users feel better after talking to a HearMe Listener, so we know there is a real opportunity to expand this benefit to older populations.
Alongside this, we also talked about tips to help your loved ones if you think they are lonely. A recurring theme throughout our conversation we felt was key: being alone is not the same as being lonely.
HearMe: Thanks for speaking with us. Can you tell us what the effects are of loneliness?
Luca Rado: With the mental health effects of loneliness showing an associated risk of depression and anxiety, combatting it is key in improving overall mental wellbeing. However, loneliness can also lead to physical health problems as well. Studies have shown that loneliness can lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and mortality.
HM: Why might an elderly loved one be more likely to experience loneliness?
LR: Loneliness in the elderly tends to be more common than in any other age group. Several factors tend to impact older people more than younger people, including.
- Being a widower – losing a spouse or partner due to old age or illness in old age is a large contributing factor to loneliness, as many find comfort, solace, and company in their other partner. Statistically speaking, women have generally reported feeling more lonely than men – this could be because women tend to live longer than men.
- Family have moved away – another reason why an elderly person may feel lonely stems from the possibility that their family members no longer live nearby, and are therefore harder to see or contact regularly. When children grow up and start to form their own lives, including perhaps starting their own family, the older generation can sometimes feel neglected, or certainly less in the centre of things as they once were. This can only be heightened by issues such as ill-health, mobility problems, or loss of a spouse or partner.
- Mobility or disability issues – another factor impacting how lonely someone may feel is how mobile that individual is, or whether they depend on others to go through the day. If they struggle to walk independently, or cannot drive or be left unaided for a long time, this can significantly reduce their social interactions. For example, they may not be able to travel to the shops unaided, or may not be able to attend community events or functions such as afternoon teas, community workshops, or group activities, such as knitting.
HM: What can you do if you think a loved one is feeling lonely?
LR: We like to share these four solutions if you are concerned a family member may be feeling lonely:
- Keep them busy - Keeping busy is the biggest form of distraction from any feelings of sadness or loneliness. Whilst at the time of writing this, there are still restrictions on interaction and meeting up, and maybe your loved one is physically unable to walk, there are other ways to keep busy. Book in calls, arrange to watch the same TV show or film and then discuss it later. Book a regular family or group visit. Plan themed meals together for particular events. Doing the same thing at the same time – even if not together – brings a sense of belonging for both parties.
- Stay in contact - Digital disconnection is one of the biggest risks of all. Whilst grandchildren and adult children can easily share pictures, videos, and voice notes, this is all very new to this generation. There are lots of advancements in technology to suit senior users or those with dexterity issues to be able to still stay in touch easily. Technology isn’t the only answer; it’s heartwarming to also receive letters or ‘thinking of you’ gifts. Regular contact is the key here. Loneliness, like all feelings, isn’t easy for someone to always communicate. Staying in regular contact keeps the communication and conversation channel open, should they wish to discuss their feelings or ask for extra support and help.
- Make inclusive plans - We’ve all gone from regular social contact to limited or zero interaction over the last year. When you’ve had a life with lots of laughs, events and engagements, this is quite a shock to the system, both physically and mentally. Not all elderly loved ones are as physically able as they used to be, and this can be a barrier in arranging activities, as they are worried they may struggle, hurt themselves, or cause inconvenience. Remind your loved one that you will be there, and find solutions to barriers that keep them alone. When it is safe to do so, arrange lunches at cafés that are wheelchair accessible, or find parks with lots of benches for rests. These little touches that are inclusive of your loved one’s situation can be the difference in their involvement and happiness, or them passing up the opportunity to socialise.
- Let them know they can speak to someone neutral - Often when we are struggling with loneliness or mental health issues, it is hard to talk to people closest to us for fear of their response. Apps like HearMe are great to offer seniors a neutral chat with a trained listener and someone completely separate of their social circle. This can make it easier to not dwell on certain topics or open up a little more than they usually would with someone they know. Recommending apps and services with empathetic listeners could make all the difference to someone’s state of mind and help overcome feelings of loneliness. None of us are ever alone.
We can all stand (and talk) together, moving forward
Coming out of the pandemic and looking toward the future, we can all recognize that mental health, and loneliness in particular, is something that we can work on together to improve. From talking directly to one another in your circle of friends or family, to using technology like HearMe, there are many ways in which we can improve our individual mental wellbeing as well as of those around us.
For more information on loneliness, communication, and interacting with elderly loved ones, The Live In Care Company has prepared this guide: https://www.theliveincarecompany.co.uk/care-guides/guide-to-loneliness/