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Technology Alone Won’t Solve Isolation and Loneliness in Aging

Jess Stonefield September 15, 2019

Using technology as a replacement for human interaction may be convenient, but it isn’t healthy or desired by today’s aging Americans.

In any city in the United States today, technology is doing human work. In many instances, that’s a good thing. As a single mother of two, I’m grateful that I can order groceries, work from home, deposit a payment, connect with an old friend, and check my recent blood test results, all without leaving my home. Technology saves me time. It saves me energy. But if I’m being honest, it also makes me lonely.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Many agree that loneliness has become an epidemic in our society—so much so that scientists are working to create a pill to cure it. As recently as last year, academics from Brigham Young University noted that advancing social connectedness should be elevated to a public health priority in the United States due to its impact on health and mortality. Isolation is not an aging issue. It’s an everyone issue. That’s why it’s so important to understand the ramifications of using technology to solve it.

In a time when the number of aging Americans is skyrocketing, and the number of people willing or able to care for them is declining, technology offers a tempting alternative to human care. But technology alone won’t solve isolation and loneliness in aging. Unless we begin to reframe both how we use it, and who we involve in developing it, technology could even exacerbate the problem.

Re-Framing Isolation in Aging

The anti-aging industry is expected to hit a value of $55 billion+ by 2023. To many of us, aging signifies decreased physical ability, a loss of beauty, and a lack of purpose. It’s something we want to avoid at any cost. Sadly, our stigmatization of aging has spilled over into the development of assistive technology and robots for aging people.

In a recent study, “Reframing Assistive Robots to Promote Successful Aging,” Dr. Laurel Riek, professor of Computer Science and Emergency Medicine, UC San Diego, and her team found that even the concept of assistive technology represents a deficit model of aging. Some develop companion robots to shoulder the burden of aging people—to privatize, rather than prevent, loneliness.

Just as importantly: older people recognize this. Riek’s research showed that while assistive robots have been developed for decades, older people have rarely chosen to adopt them in their real lives, in part because they are hard to use, and also because they focus on disability, rather than successful aging. Amanda Lazar, assistant professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, agrees.

“The technology events on aging I have been to can skew very young,” she says. “The technology is designed by younger people, for younger people—their eyes, their brains, their fingers, their life experiences—so there should be no surprise if the things that are created are difficult to use or don’t meet the needs of older people.”

Paul Nussbaum, Ph.D., a board-certified clinical and geropsychologist focused on brain health in aging, suggests there may be another, even more obvious reason for low robot adoption.

“Human interaction is biologically important,” Nussbaum says. “In the next 40-50 years we may find humans willing to have technology and robots lead or control most of our primary daily activities and interactions. In the meantime, it’s just not the same.”

Using technology as a replacement for human interaction may be convenient, but it isn’t healthy or desired by today’s aging Americans. We need to start thinking of technology as a way to increase human interaction, rather than merely a way to prevent loneliness in aging people.

Ending Isolation: Looking Beyond the Aging Person

When we think of using technology to end social isolation, it’s easy to get stuck on the concept of care-bots and telehealth services. However, developing the right technology for caregivers, clinicians, policymakers and even insurers can also go a long way in preventing social isolation in older people by freeing up more time for them to make human connections.

“Technology that allows nurses to be nurses, that allows clinicians to be clinicians—these are the types of things that can increase human touch,” Nussbaum says.

On the healthcare side, there’s AI to help process paperwork and other mundane tasks on the part of doctors and nurses. These types of technologies can increase the quality of human interaction between caregivers and their loved ones, as well. For instance, technology like Answerbot and GI Joe Robot can help relieve the stress of caring for those struggling with dementia. Answerbot will do the stressful work of answering repetitive questions and redirecting conversation. Other technologies have further helped to reduce the stress of caregivers by “playing the bad guy” in limiting the intake of certain foods, mandating physical activity, or requiring a caregivee to take his or her medication. Even apps like Instacart and Shipt do well in relieving the stress of shopping for groceries while trying to care for someone we love.  This in turn allows the caregiver to engage in more meaningful and enjoyable social interaction and relationship with the caregivee overall—a much higher goal.

A Meaningful Way Forward

Sometimes technology can be used to bring older adults together, and a few projects have had success in this regard, Riek says. This can include connections to existing family members and friends (e.g., Skype), social networking, companion robotic pets, etc. Technology can also be a lifeline for those living in isolated areas. 

“It’s not so much the technology itself, but how it’s used,” she shared with me. “If a health system decides to replace healthcare worker home visits with telehealth consultations, it removes human contact from someone. In addition to the social benefits the older adult receives from the visit, the healthcare worker may notice things around the house which affect a person’s health (e.g., a rug that is a tripping hazard, the presence of fruit and vegetables, etc). However, there are many people across the world who don’t receive any care, and a telehealth consultation is far better than nothing.”

Nussbaum agrees. Especially in rural areas, a telehealth consultation could be the difference between at least some digitalized human interaction and no human interaction at all.

Still, despite huge advances in the personalization of artificial intelligence, there is no technology that can replace human touch, smell, warmth, or even human kindness. And, it shouldn’t try to. The gold standard should always remain human interaction. By developing technology hand in hand with older people, we will go much further in reaching the ultimate goal: not merely a reduction in social isolation, but a model for successful aging overall.

Stria sponsors GrandPad and Home Instead made “The Role of Technology in Social Isolation” special editorial series possible.

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Jess Stonefield

Jess Stonefield is a contributing writer on aging, mental health and the greater longevity economy for publications such as Changing Aging, The Mighty and Next Avenue. She is passionate about impact investing and the greater concept of “equitable equity”—spreading wealth to all levels of our society. She is a communications expert for Senior Living Fund.

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