We can’t understand what it’s like to be lonely until we’ve had no communication with anyone for days and weeks on end. But 200,000 people in the UK aged 65 and over experience this every day, having no conversation with friends or relatives in a month, according to Age UK research.
Loneliness is one of the biggest problems for an aging population. As people become less mobile and in need of care, their loss of independence impacts mental as well as physical wellbeing. In fact, the same research from Age UK highlights an increased risk of premature death by up to 25% and a greater risk of Alzheimer’s.
This is a complex problem with no easy solution. It’s further compounded by families being more geographically dispersed than ever before. We need to realise our aging parents and relatives are lonely and pick up the phone. We might be busy, but one day it’ll be too late.
In fact, with all the technology available these days it’s certainly easier now to communicate with elderly loved ones. However, there seems to be this myth that it’s a young person’s tool. That’s simply not true. The use of technology in the over 65s age group is growing. The Office of National Statistics found that: “Women aged 75 and over, had seen the largest rise in recent internet use, up 169.0% from 2011; however, still less than a third (32.6%) were recent users in 2016”. Granted, these figures are not high but the increased usage is encouraging.
One factor could be that some older people are using technology to connect with friends and family. A laptop or tablet with FaceTime or Skype can be easily used to have a ‘face-to-face’ conversation with someone, helping people feel included and connected. There’s so many benefits in having access to technology – even if someone is over 80, 90 or beyond.
In fact, Stanford research reported that adults over 80 in the US had better mental and physical wellbeing as a result. Whilst more research needs to be done, this is positive news which shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated.
The truth is, technology has a real social element that can support clients in their own homes. A lot may come down to family and friends (after all there must be someone to have a conversation with), but it’s something that should be encouraged. And within a care home environment, having video call facilities can help residents keep regular contact with relatives and friends to provide them with the social interaction they often crave.
Luckily, technology is not only getting smarter it’s also getting simpler too. This makes it more accessible, regardless of age group. Once shown, some residents may be able to use the tablet device on their own. Others who are more frail may need someone to help them. Where there’s an entertainments officer on site, this would be a good fit for their remit.
And it does make a difference. I read quite recently about a care home resident who watched her grandson’s wedding – and then spoke to the happy couple as they signed the register! That’s the power of video calls. Another example was of an elderly lady, who with the help of her care home had a regular video call with her son who was living abroad.
The value doesn’t stop there. Technology can connect service users in their home with their care provider too. If they feel unhappy, they (or a friend of family member) can log this on the portal using a mobile device or laptop. The care provider can then carry out a mobile assessment and everyone in that person’s care network can be instantly alerted. It can also be used to provide access to a GP or health professional over video call to talk through how they’re feeling or if they’re unwell.
Similarly, family members who live far away from their elderly relatives can use mobile apps to access live information on the care and support their loved ones are receiving, directly from their care visits or care home.
Used in the right way, technology ensures clients have access to services and can reach someone when they need it most. The social element of care is so fundamental to wellbeing that it can’t be ignored.
Does it replace face to face human interaction? Probably not. But when you’re alone or immobile, having someone you can reach out to – even if it’s via technology – can make all the difference in the world.