Loneliness is a defining characteristic of the twenty-first century and one of the most significant public health issues facing society today. And it’s not just the elderly living in care homes who complain of being lonely. A whole range of individuals across broadly differing demographics experience it.
Three in five 18 to 34-year olds in the UK are lonely and so too are nearly half of all 10 to 15-year olds. The number of over-50s experiencing loneliness is set to reach two million by 2025/6 and there are 1.2 million chronically lonely people in the UK[i].
In recent times, problems of loneliness and isolation have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The health implications of loneliness are profound and can result in early death. It rivals obesity as a killer, and some argue it kills more people than cancer or heart disease.
The question is, why are we all so lonely?
A lonely problem
The reasons for loneliness in our society are complicated and far-reaching. We are more fragmented and reliant on automation than previous generations. The decline of our heavy industries is partly responsible in that many communities centred around the mines and docks were lost. We now favour flexible employment and gig work, meaning we relocate more and are increasingly isolated from friends and family. The cost of housing also means that many young people must rent for prolonged periods making it harder to put down roots and be part of a community.
But could technology be the key to easing the problem?
Smart tech to check isolation
This is a question tech companies like Alcove, which specialises in assisted living, are trying to answer.
The enterprise is repurposing smart technology, such as motion sensors and wearables, to meet the needs of the elderly. It has even adjusted Amazon’s Alexa with a pre-configured emergency function so that when users give a ‘help’ command, the device sends a message to their carer or family members. And It is using technology to prevent events from occurring rather than just responding. One of the products Alcove has created is a system designed to prevent wandering, which is a frequent problem for those who suffer from memory loss. The technology places sensors at the front door and hallway and creates an alert if the door is opened and the resident leaves the house.
Then there’s Zanithon, another smart home technology company trying to combat isolation by creating fall-detection software using motion sensors to monitor an elderly users’ movements and vital signs to assess whether they need medical attention. Zanithon’s chief executive, Phil Regenie, believes this technology will eventually be able to predict when an older person is in danger of falling and hopefully prevent it from happening in the first place.
Smart ways to alleviate exclusion
Researchers are also developing AI companions to alleviate loneliness. Japanese industrial automation pioneer AIST have developed PARO, a therapeutic robotic seal that provides companionship for the isolated and elderly. The seal has five sensors that react to light, temperature, posture and sound. It is often used for patients who have dementia. And researchers have found evidence that suggests PARO reduces stress and anxiety as well as improves patients’ moods by encouraging social interaction. However, it might be many decades before we can recreate the world of Spike Jonze’s film ‘Her’ where Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an artificially intelligent virtual assistant Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).
When designed with good intentions, smart home technology has the power to revolutionise the care of the elderly and transform lives by increasing independence and self-care. Although it’s no substitute for real human contact, when used in combination with social interaction, smart tech can mitigate much of the widespread loneliness many face today. And for those that have problems with mobility, this technology can make life a lot easier. In the future, it’s clear that smart home technology, which aids social inclusion, independence, and mobility will play a crucial role in helping aging populations and those suffering from isolation.