Can Technology Cure Loneliness Among Older Adults?

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February 16, 2018 | Written by: Sheila Zinck

Loneliness is more than a state of mind — it’s an emerging risk factor that has staggering implications for personal, economic and societal wellbeing.

The toll of loneliness on the world’s rapidly growing aging population is particularly acute, with former US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy raising the alarm on the far-reaching impacts and the UK recently appointing a Minister of Loneliness to address the growing epidemic.

In the IBM IBV study, “Loneliness and the aging population – how businesses and governments can address a looming crisis”, we examined the role that technology could play to reduce loneliness, interviewing experts and organizations across a wide variety of disciplines.  I recently spoke again with two leaders at the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, Kari Olson, President, Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, and Davis Park, Executive Director, about the role of technology in mitigating loneliness and what they have learned from the solutions implemented at their Front Porch retirement and assisted the living communities. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Individual technology use isn’t the answer.  Using technology to find and create more moments of meaningful engagement is.

Davis: At Front Porch our approach is to look for tools and technology that will engage an individual, but also act as tool to bring the entire community together. For example, the focus of our Paro robotic pet companion program is not just to get people interacting with the device, but also to leverage it as way to increase connection with others around them.

Kari: With Paro, we are measuring not only the effect of the intervention when it was used, but also the halo effect after, how it affected engagement, brightness and mood in a number of areas. We have very robust findings that show individuals had incredible increases in mood, decreases in agitation and reductions in psychotropic med use. But as important, we have qualitative data and stories of residents who were staying in their rooms or weren’t speaking, who are now coming to life and engaging with their caregivers, family and other residents in the presence of a tool like this.

Personalization is key to a killer app

Davis:  We’ve heard hundreds of stories where people introduce technology to an older adult and they say “I can’t get her to use it,” “it’s not working”, “he never remembers how to use it” or she doesn’t really care for it.”  We approach technology tools in a way that really respects the experiences and preferences of the individual. For example, with our Alexa project, we asked people about what kind of music they liked, what channels they preferred, what kind of news programs they listened to, like Fox or CNN or NPR?  And we customized that initial Alexa experience for them so that they made an immediate meaningful connection with using the device.

Kari:  With all of our projects we try really hard not to prescribe what the technology should do, but rather give people platforms that allow them to be really creative and define how it could meet their needs. With Alexa, we were surprised by how many innovative ideas people had – “hey, it’s a safety device, I can use Alexa to turn on a light at night when I get up”. When individuals are allowed to personalize the technology to meet their own specific needs it creates a type of engagement with the technology that is really sustained and very strong and drives further adoption.  And it’s been incredible to see and it keeps happening in our work again and again and again.

Never underestimate the power of champions.

Davis: With the Alexa project, we never predicted the extent that residents would become champions of this technology and introduce it on their own to some of their more socially isolated neighbors, as a means to draw them out and be part of the larger community. People excited about their Amazon Dot would contribute funds for the purchase of an Amazon Dot for the next resident, forming a neat circle of power users and “Alexa clubs” to support the adoption into more and more homes.

If a technology provider asked me for advice…..

Kari: Do your focus group work with the older adult population, learn deeply about their needs, and listen closely to what they want. Make personalization really easy and the starting point for the product. Break down silos so that all the pieces – wifi, smartphone, sensors, users – all work seamlessly. Create eco-systems that will drive the adoption and support not just one time, but over time.

It’s not about putting humans in the technology ecosystem. It’s about putting technology in the human ecosystem, and we can never lose sight of that.

Davis: When it comes to technology interventions, we know from experience there is no “magic bullet”. Rather, we see technology as one of a number of different tools in a toolbox, and each one is going to serve a different purpose for a different individual, depending on the circumstances. And we evaluate these tools on how they can be a platform for connecting people.

Kari: In terms of combating loneliness and social isolation we need to remember that the starting point is always about creating meaningful engagement. Technology in and of itself can’t reduce loneliness, but tools that bring people together and create these moments of engagement can. Even a medication management tool can remediate loneliness if changes a conversation from “Did you take you meds?” to “I see your meds are taken care of, how are you doing today?”

For us, it always comes down to how technology can help further human connection and bring people closer together in a way that builds and strengthens the individual and the community.

To learn more about the results of the IBM study and Front Porch research projects, please visit us at our session on technology and loneliness, “A New Kind of Village: Combating Loneliness in Older Adults” at the  HIMSS 2018 and IBM Think 2018 conferences in March.

Visit IBM Watson Health, Booth #6243 at HIMSS18. Learn more about IBM’s presence at the event: