The UK is currently in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. While feelings of isolation can affect people of any age, it’s particularly pertinent in the older generation. A recent survey in support of the Jo Cox commission on loneliness found that 73% of older people are lonely — and over half have never told someone how they feel.
However, while loneliness is hitting the headlines now, it’s not an epidemic that has been established overnight. Almost half of the elderly people who said they were lonely admit to having felt like that for years.
It’s not just overall quality of life that is at risk through loneliness — physical health is also at risk. Lonely older people have a 14% greater risk of dying — nearly double the risk of obesity and just 5% lower than poverty (19%).
The causes of loneliness in an aging population are numerous, but what is the solution? Technology is the centre of fierce debate, with some viewing it as a solution to loneliness in the elderly, while others take a more negative stance. Weighing up these views is straight stairlifts retailer Acorn Stairlifts:
The growth of technology and social media in particular has meant our society is more connected than ever before. Surely then, technology’s uniting ability means in theory, it should have an intrinsic role in combatting loneliness in the older generations.
While some perceive social media negatively, 59% of respondents in one survey said sites like Facebook and Twitter helped them feel less lonely. Likewise, 82% said they found it easier to talk about loneliness online rather than in-person.
It’s important to consider the above in relation to the proportion of older people who use the platforms. Just 5% of Facebook’s global users were aged between 55 and 64, while only 4% were 65 or over. It’s a similar story for Twitter too, with just 16% of over 50s using the platform.
Clearly then, the argument for social media to combat loneliness in the elderly is clouded by just how accessible these platforms are. If the older generations aren’t using them, what good can be gained from proposing social platforms as potential solutions to loneliness, without putting adequate plans in place to encourage this usage?
That said, there is no doubt that when social media is adopted, it can help overcome communication barriers and allow older people to connect with loved ones virtually. According to one US study by Michigan State University, elderly people who use social technologies, such as Facebook, Twitter and Skype, were more satisfied with their life and showed fewer symptoms of depression, high blood pressure and diabetes.
While the number of older people using social media may be comparatively low, how does internet usage within the demographic compare?
Office for National Statistics’ Internet Users in the UK survey has been carried out since 2011 and each year, the over 75s have the lowest internet usage rates. However, 2017’s results show that the older generation are using the internet more. 65 to 74-year-olds had a usage rate of 78%, up from 52% in 2011.
While this is undoubted progress from previous years, we need to also consider the bigger picture. Half of the 4.8 million adults who had never used the internet were 75 or over. The over 75s also had the highest lapsed internet usage rate at 7% — this suggests that while more of this age group has used the internet, they’re not necessarily continuing this usage or using it on a regular basis.
61% of elderly people said they did not have the internet because they don’t need it. In Age UK’s Later Life in a Digital World report, 50% of survey respondents did not use the internet because they didn’t know how to use it, while a third said it was too complicated. Perhaps then before the internet can be seriously considered as a solution to loneliness in the elderly, we must first educate them on the benefits it can bring, as well as how to access them.
For those who don’t use the internet, many cite the complexity or a lack of knowledge as the reason why. Voice recognition devices — which once setup will essentially eliminate the problematic PC interface — could be beneficial in helping combat loneliness.
Voice assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and the Google Assistant, can act as company for older people who are experiencing loneliness. The devices can also act as a gateway to the internet — instead of booting up a computer, using a search engine and typing out a query, people can simply verbally ask a question and gain an instant answer.
The devices are believed to support Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers. For example, should information slip from memory, users can ask the device to find out instant information. However, some experts believe that this could cause problems as the diseases progress and an older person becomes more confused.
A Final Thought
Through examining the existing research and information out there, it’s difficult to determine just what the answer to combatting loneliness is. What we thought was a simple yes-no decision around technology is actually much more complex.
Because of the mixture of benefits and drawbacks offered, we cannot definitely say that technology either fully alleviates or adds to an individual’s loneliness.
Technology can be used positively to combat loneliness, but it can never fully replace face-to-face contact. Children, loved ones and friends need to strike the balance, using a mix of text messages, emails, voice and video calls alongside in-person visits to help reduce loneliness in the older generations.
In addition to support from families, groups, clubs and societies are all available that can encourage socialising amongst the older generation. It is for these reasons that we can’t simply conclude that technology alone will rectify the UK’s loneliness epidemic. Rather, we all have our part to play to combat social exclusion and show the older generation just how valued they really are.