Vodafone shows how tech is being used to help lonely older people

The company’s new collation of research puts forward the case on how technology, such as wearable devices and touchscreens, can be used to ease loneliness and depression in over 50s.

TechConnect workshop

A new report by Vodafone has found that technology can have a positive impact on older people’s wellbeing, helping to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation if used appropriately.

The Harnessing Technology to Tackle Loneliness report, which collates research from various sources, looks at the causes of loneliness in those aged over 50, and how physical products and digital platforms can be used to tackle the problem.

1.5 million older people feel lonely

According to the report, it is estimated that around 1.5 million people aged 50 and over in the UK feel lonely on a regular basis. This is based on combined research from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the Co-op and charity Red Cross.

Age UK adds that nearly 2 million older people often feel “ignored or invisible”, while it estimates that 3.6 million older people in the UK live alone.

Causes of loneliness are varied, according to the charity, and include living alone, being widowed or divorced, having a lack of contact with friends and family, being disabled or in poor health, feeling stigmatised and left out of society because of their ethnicity, sexuality, income level or other demographic, and the friendliness of the area in which they life.

The report says that loneliness impacts society in three main ways: people’s health and wellbeing, cost to public services, such as health and social care, and the cost to the economy in general.

An increase in depression and dementia

Research from not-for-profit organisation Social Finance has found that older people who are lonely are over three times more likely to have depression, and nearly twice as likely to develop dementia. The likelihood of being physically inactive also increases, and they are nearly twice as likely to visit a doctor or Accident and Emergency (A&E) department.

In terms of the economy, the report says that loneliness has been found to cost employers over £200 million a year in total, due to people taking time off sick for loneliness, or to care for others who are lonely.

Vodafone’s report suggests that tech can help to tackle loneliness by boosting older people’s confidence and independent living, and by helping them to maintain and build a network of friends, family and contacts – but that it is essential that they understand fully how to use tech for the benefits to be felt.

Wristband to alert family members

The report highlights certain tech that looks to help older people regain independence and increase their safety. One such example is Vodafone’s smart wearable wristband, the V-SOS band, which alerts family members via their phone if their relative needs help. It also has sensors in it to detect when someone has fallen over.

The device has been designed to be “discrete”, “comfortable” and “water resistant”, is made of a hypoallergenic material and has a one-month long battery life, says Kate Wright, head of consumer services and innovation at Vodafone UK.

The device aims to help “keep people in their own homes for longer” rather than go into care, adds Wright, while giving family members “peace of mind”.

Another Vodafone device is the Kraydel, a touchscreen that sits on top of a TV and allows people to speak directly to family members and friends through their TV screens, without needing to use a smartphone, with the aim of “boosting their social interaction”, says Wright.

Smart scooter to increase mobility

Scooter for older people, by PriestmanGoode

One more example is the AV1 robot, designed by Norway-based start-up No Isolation and supported by Vodafone, which has been used in classrooms as well as in care homes. The little robot acts as an “avatar” for a person living with a long-term illness, sitting in a social situation in place of someone. Connected via an app, camera, speaker and microphone, a person can see, hear and speak as if they were physically there.

Designers have tried to tackle the ageing population crisis with various projects in the last few years; PriestmanGoode’s Scooter for Life, which launched in 2017, is a partly power-assisted, standing scooter, which can be adapted to be seated when required, and looks to keep older people active for longer.

A care home search website was also designed by digital studio OLM Systems in 2017, which looked to make finding a spare bed easier and more efficient, for older people, their families and their carers. Additionally, the Design Council launched a £3.7 million scheme in 2016 which looked to create new solutions to transform the lives of older people.

Many older people can’t get online

AV1 robot, by No Isolation and Vodafone, photo: courtesy London Design Biennale

“Tech can have an enormously positive impact on the lives of those who are suffering from loneliness,” says Wright. “One of the main causes is a lack of social interaction. Tech can be used to support older people to remain independent in their homes and community by increasing connectivity.”

While tech is being used to help improve older people’s communication and independence, staying digitally connected has also been found to have a negative impact on people’s mental health, with research previously finding that social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram can increase feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, particularly in young people.

An additional challenge is that a large proportion of older people are not confident or do not understand how to use tech, says Wright, which can increase the feeling of isolation. Over half of those in the UK aged over 75 have never used the internet, while a third of those aged over 65 say they are not confident doing so, according to the ONS.

Masterclasses to teach older people about tech

“We know that some over 50s struggle with learning tech skills, which can contribute to feelings of isolation, but with the right support, it can [help people],” says Wright.

Vodafone has launched free masterclasses across the UK in response to this problem, as part of a programme called TechConnect, which looks to increase older people’s confidence.

When used appropriately, tech can play a crucial role in “bringing people together” across the world, Wright adds, as people increasingly travel, work and communicate remotely.

Doctors “prescribing” tech and more Government support

Alongside pushing the need to learn about and embrace tech, the report suggests further-reaching solutions to the loneliness problem. It recommends that doctors should be able to “prescribe” tech such as learning courses, wearable devices and monitoring systems to patients, and also suggests a Government consultation on how to best support independent living in older age.

It is calling for charities and other organisations to launch learning initiatives, similar to Age UK’s existing computer courses in local centres and is pushing for the development of a “tech toolkit”, which would be a set of guidance that could be picked up in physical stores or online, to give older people and their families more resources.

Finally, it asks for a new Government-led fund, which external partners could contribute to, that focuses on using tech to improve independent living and tackle loneliness.

Read Vodafone’s Harnessing Technology to Tackle Loneliness report in full here.

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