It is well-established that loneliness is a widespread problem affecting over 40% of adults in the United States. Researchers report that among older adults, the negative effects of loneliness on health are more dangerous than smoking.
When we set out to build a scalable technology to address this problem at OneClick.Chat, we wanted a broad solution that would be valuable to older adults, regardless of the strength of their existing social networks. In doing so, we quickly discovered a body of preconceived notions: that older adults cannot or do not want to use new technologies, and that they do not want to make new social connections outside their friends and family. Understanding whether there is truth behind these assumptions was crucial to our early success.
We reviewed leading research, and eventually partnered with researchers in human factors and aging to conduct our own studies, with the goal of understanding the attitudes of older adults towards using technology and making social connections. Along the way, we gained a few key insights worth sharing:
Research consistently shows that older adults are interested in computers, the internet, and social media, and are also willing to explore and adopt new technologies. The main barrier to adoption for seniors is the apprehension around unclear or unavailable instructions and support. This can easily be avoided by involving older adults in the design process and by taking advantage of existing design resources.
Technology adoption among the senior demographic will only increase as the largest generation, Boomers, continue to redefine the aging process. According to Pew, seniors ages 65 to 69 are about twice as likely as those ages 80 and older to go online (82% vs. 44%) and they are roughly four times as likely to own smartphones (59% vs. 17%).
In feedback from users of our platform, we found that even seniors with strong existing social networks enjoyed meeting new people for conversations centered around a shared interest, such as lifelong learning and hobby-based discussions. Connecting with new people was particularly useful during periods when they were homebound or otherwise socially isolated.
In situations where a senior does not have a strong social support network, (i.e. their spouse has passed away or limited family/friends), having access to new people is even more important. This has been validated by organizations like The Silver Line (based in the UK) and the Friendship Line (based in California, which both serve as telephone hotlines for older adults feeling lonely. The Silver Line now receives over 10,000 calls every week, with 53% of Silver Line callers saying they have literally no one else to speak to. According to a recent survey, 22% of UK adults over 65 years will converse with no more than three people in a given week.
While there is evidence that loneliness leads to negative health outcomes, conversely increasing social engagement is associated with beneficial mental, physical and cognitive health outcomes.
Computer use and social engagement are both associated with a lower risk of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and progression into Alzheimer’s Disease. MCI is the pre-dementia stage in which cognitive decline is more pronounced compared to what is expected for a person’s age and education, which makes maintaining social networks difficult, and can lead to social withdrawal and isolation.
Disproving these preconceived notions through rigorous research and understanding the potential health implications has led to a better platform design for OneClick.chat. In the coming years, our team hopes to continue adding to the valuable research on the impact and efficacy of technology interventions to improve the lives of older adults. As the longevity market continues to expand with new services and technologies, we hope product designers benefit from the insights we have shared, and that we can all do well while doing good.
Stria sponsors GrandPad and Home Instead made “The Role of Technology in Social Isolation” special editorial series possible.