With the help of Aging 2.0 in recent years, both investors and tech giants alike have increased their focus on bringing relevant technology to those in our aging community. Thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT), today’s gadgets can do everything from remind our people to take their medication to monitor their heart rate or insulin levels from afar. Especially in the field of mobile healthcare, this seems like a tremendous gain. But it could also be argued that today’s technology has an incredibly dangerous side effect: increased loneliness.
It’s no surprise that many of us feel a sense of loneliness as we get older. After all, we lose spouses, friends, careers, and sometimes even our independence. But some may not realize what a prevalent issue it really is. A recent study from University of California in San Francisco showed 43 percent of people over age 65 felt lonely, even if they lived with other people. What’s worse: the study also showed those 60+ who said they were lonely had a 45 percent higher risk of death.
The negative health effects of loneliness have been well documented. Studies show it can lead to dementia, depression, malnutrition, and other health issues. According to AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect program, chronic loneliness has the same impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day—or even being obese. This begs the question: what can be done about this aging health epidemic?
Some point to the latest tech advancements as a way for people to connect, even if they are home bound or live alone. Indeed, online shopping allows a way to order needed products for easy home delivery, and mobile healthcare offers the opportunity to see your doctor without ever walking to the car. But doesn’t that also increase the isolation our aging community is already experiencing? After all, numerous studies today show more time on social media leads to higher likelihood of social isolation and mental health issues in many individuals—young and old alike. By offering so many mobile solutions, “digital longevity” may actually be forcing people to lose valuable human contact, rather than gain it.
The answer, as with most issues in the age of digital transformation, is to find the right balance of innovation and human support. The following are just a few things to keep in mind as you explore—or invest in—today’s growing list of digital longevity solutions.
Understand the True Meaning of Loneliness
The true opposite of loneliness is not social media or internet access, but social integration. Although some online social groups may offer a level of social integration, it can’t replace the feeling of volunteering, joining a hobby group, tutoring a child, or feeling a warm hug. Feeling part of something bigger than oneself is a necessary part of human existence. It’s also something technology alone can’t provide.
Think Beyond the Internet
As recently as this past May, Aging 2.0’s Chief Elder Care officer expressed her frustration with today’s investors and entrepreneurs, saying they out of touch with what today’s older consumer really want and need. New technology developers need to think in ways consumers think, creating ways to connect beyond simply going online. For instance, one inventor created a tea kettle that lit up each time a designated family member or friend was making tea at their own homes. The warm light helped the customer feel closer through family tradition and memories.
Think Quality over Quantity
Spending four hours on social media or online shopping sites might be fun, but it won’t necessarily fill a hole in one’s heart if they desire meaningful human contact. Rather than focus on the basics of making your family member more “accessible,” focus on the level of fulfillment they can gain from that accessibility. It’s possible that taking an online course or donating one’s services on a cross-generational skill sharing site like linkAges could be far more meaningful. One participant in a class created by Selfhelp Virtual Senior Center said the courses helped him move from waiting to die—to feeling reborn again. That’s the kind of impact true innovation should have.
Focus on Inter-generational Living Spaces—Not Segregated Housing
Yes, younger people should be invited into assisted living communities to help older adults learn to use new technologies. But the value comes not just in the learning, but in the heart-to-heart connections created during those periods of teaching. The country as a whole needs to put more emphasis not just on creating segregated housing—but on inter-generational housing that helps create meaningful relationships for all ages.
Know the Limits of Technology
Email does not release oxytocin. Neither does Facebook. So while email and Facetime are better than nothing, they are not everything—and should never be considered so. As one researcher observed, “Even when internet use helps create or maintain relationships, the effects may not fully replicate what has been lost.”
The feeling of loneliness and isolation people are facing is not simply due to aging—it’s due to our society’s lack of value for older adults. Today’s families are so focused on their phones, sports, school, and work stresses that it’s hard to make time for aging loved ones. At times, they can be seen as a stress or nuisance, rather than a wealth of wisdom and love. Some countries, such as Japan and the United Kingdom, have already introduced “care-bots” to care for the aging population—a move some have called “emotionally dangerous.” As a society, we need to remember there is no miracle technology that can change this loneliness issue. It’s a cultural shift that we as a country need to start working toward.
The majority of the current Baby Boomer generation will not age into senior housing until 2035. By then, most will have spent a large part of their lives using technology—and also feeling the pains of it. The excitement of finding a new way of connecting with family or friends will have long worn off, potentially leaving them even more lonely in the process. Therefore, as we continue to develop new technologies to help improve our longevity, we must consider that true longevity cannot be built by digital methods alone. There is no substitute for human contact—and we can only hope there never will be.