Loneliness and social isolation are twin scourges among seniors, impacting their physical and mental health, as well as their quality of life. That was especially clear during the pandemic, when lockdowns and social distancing limited their contact with others, but it is no less clear today, as the effects of COVID-19 have dissipated to some degree.
The World Health Organization states that in some countries 33 percent of those over the age of 65 are lonely (i.e., lacking social connections that meet their needs), while in other nations, like the U.S., 25 percent are isolated (i.e., lacking an appreciable number of social contacts).
Small wonder that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called loneliness an “epidemic.” And while he believes that its impact is felt by people of all ages, the above numbers show it is particularly acute among seniors. Studies have shown that its negative effects rival those of smoking and obesity, as reflected in the fact that those suffering from loneliness are at a 50 percent greater risk of suffering from dementia, a 32 percent greater risk of suffering a stroke and a 29 percent greater risk of suffering from heart disease.
The root causes of this plague are many, but the good news is that more and more solutions are emerging, not the least of which are in the technological realm. We have seen during the pandemic the value of such communications platforms as Zoom, FaceTime and Skype. Others have noted that seniors have more and more access to online resources, like virtual museum tours, which enable them to venture outside their comfort zones without ever leaving their favorite easy chairs.
Of particular interest is the rise of social robots. A 2021 piece in an American magazine called the New Yorker noted that some 20,000 robotic pets had been dispensed to seniors. The piece, written by a respected author named Katie Engelhart, also detailed the interactions of an 81-year-old divorcee named Deanna Dezern with her voice-activated personal care companion ElliQ, which is produced by a California company called Intuition Robotics. She would frequently prod the device to share an interesting fact, and it would deliver, whether it involved comparing the sugar content of lemons and strawberries or even reciting a poem by Emily Dickinson.
“Maybe that wasn’t intimacy,” Engelhart wrote, “but it didn’t feel like solitude, either.”
On that score, Dezern agreed. “My last husband was a robot,” she told Engelhart, “but he wasn’t as good as her.”
The odd thing is, technology is one of the factors that has contributed to the epidemic of which Murthy has often spoken. As noted in a January 2022 piece on the website A Place for Mom, the ever-evolving tech world can leave seniors feeling out of step with younger generations, if not the world at large.
Certainly that’s not the only reason for the rise of loneliness. Others include decreased contact with loved ones, a shrinking inner circle and decreased mobility, as they are forced to give up driving. But the point is this: As much as technology can be part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. New developments will certainly emerge in the years ahead, developments that can further scuttle this scourge, and open new windows for seniors.