The word “lonely” is defined as “affected with, characterized by, or causing a depressing feeling of being alone; lonesome.” (dictionary.com) We’ve all been there at one point or another. But unfortunately, according to a 2010 survey by AARP, 25 percent of the 70 and over population in the U.S. experience loneliness as a daily reality and it’s a condition with a significant risk attached.
One meta-analysis of research into the health aspects of loneliness, published in 2010, found that people with weak social connections had a higher mortality risk than those with obesity. Loneliness is also associated with decreased resistance to infection, depression and dementia, and increased emergency admission to hospital, according to this review of research on seniors and isolation published in BMJ Open in 2017.
Curbing loneliness for elders will not be easy, but emerging tech development, like companion robots, which we talked about in our earlier blog post, can help reduce isolation. Social media is also promising for older adults to connect with others–in fact, the over-55 crowd is quickly becoming Facebook’s second-biggest demographic, according to The Guardian’s recent Is Facebook for old people? article. Using a virtual personal assistant is one more route. Some virtual assistants actually initiate social contact―take the digital puppy featured in Wired’s What happens when we let tech care for our aging parentsarticle published in 2017.
Reach out and touch someone, virtually
Now, cutting edge technology can be used for social interaction―enter virtual reality (VR), a term coined by Jason Lanier, founder of VPL Research, in the mid-1980’s. Today, VR has multiple applications across industries including healthcare. Medicalfurturist.com recently published, 5 ways Medical VR is Changing Healthcare, citing the use of VR to allow medical students to experience life as an elder. Hospitalized patients are using VR to beam to another location and experience everything from walking on the beach to hanging out at home. The applications are endless and a promising technology for addressing the loneliness epidemic.
The social aspects of VR is now becoming more and more prominent; for instance, Altspace VR allows people all over the world to attend virtual meetups and to gather relatives for a virtual family gathering. Some startups are using VR to connect older adults with limited mobility to the outside world. Rendever, for one, provides “bucket list” experiences like sky diving or visiting a museum that seniors can do in groups. (Its VR system also connects to Google Street View, allowing users to see 3-D views of places of personal importance like their childhood home.)
Of course, VR by itself won’t eliminate the “depressed feeling of being alone,” but it can allow seniors to have meaningful experiences that lead to equally meaningful conversations. And that makes it worth looking.