Earlier this year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called attention to the “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” sweeping the country. While no group of Americans is immune to loneliness, one population is particularly susceptible: older adults.
A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine shows that more than a third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-quarter of adults aged 65 and older are considered socially isolated. The reasons vary, from declining mobility to the loss of loved ones, but the consequences are clear: A lack of connection can lead to serious adverse health effects.
One particular challenge: Our relationships today are mediated by technology, which often isn’t designed with the elderly in mind. “Most tech is created for younger people,” says Dr. Carla Perissinotto, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and an expert in geriatrics. “It doesn’t think about some of the challenges that older adults may have.”
Technology has often been pinned as a culprit for loneliness, but by taking seniors’ needs into account in its design and implementation, technology can instead be a powerful force to help seniors connect with loved ones — and live healthier, less lonely lives.
Warm, virtual technology
Karen Dolva, a Norwegian computer scientist and interaction designer, is the CEO and cofounder of No Isolation, a company that aims to help people connect virtually through “warm technology.” “Technology will do what you design it to do,” says Dolva. “It is quite clear that technology, when made right, can be inclusive and warm.”
In late 2017, No Isolation created Komp, a stand-alone, tablet-like device with a single-button screen that enables seniors to communicate with relatives in a simple, secure, and safe way. Through the end-to-end encrypted Komp app, children and grandchildren can send photos and messages and make video calls to their older relatives. There are no passwords, automatic software updates, or touch screens to operate. George Howe, a sales director for No Isolation, explained in a webinar: “We tried to keep it very simple to reach the people with the most limited technical competence.”
Researchers from Oslo Metropolitan University conducted an independent user survey and concluded that Komp reduced the loneliness of older adults by increasing family contact. One researcher wrote that it even “changes the interaction in a way that makes it richer and gives the senior more to contribute in conversations with family.” During the pandemic, 320 Komp devices were implemented in all of Oslo’s 19 nursing homes. Research from No Isolation, the Oslo Nursing Home Agency, and Oslo Metropolitan University found that, across the board, Komp increased “the quality of life of the nursing home residents.”
Dolva says it’s actually not all that counterintuitive that tech can be used to connect older adults, instead of isolating them. “We can, by developing the right tools, increase human-to-human connection,” she says.
Tech facilitating in-person connection
While user-friendly design choices can help improve virtual technologies, helping older populations to connect with loved ones online, it’s just as critical — if not more — that technology helps elders connect with others in real life.
According to Dr. Perissinotto, inaccessibility to transportation is one of the critical factors that can lead to loneliness among older adults. “People may lose their ability to drive for many reasons,” she says. “There’s a direct risk of isolation when older adults aren’t able to get out of their house. But there’s also the loss of dignity and autonomy, not being able to do those things on your own. So access to transportation ends up being a huge need.”
Back in 2016, Lyft executives realized that rideshare could help address that need and fill the mobility gaps for house-bound seniors. The epiphany came from an unexpected source: a potential fraud alert triggered when thousands of Lyft rides were ordered in Salt Lake City, Utah, but were dispatched in New York City. It turns out, transportation managers working on behalf of healthcare organizations across the country were requesting rides for seniors to get to and from their healthcare appointments.
“A light bulb went off,” Buck Poropatich, Lyft’s head of healthcare, told Rev. “A modern, on-demand transportation network like Lyft creates new opportunities, especially for older adults.”
Once Poropatich and his team started thinking critically about how to serve this customer base he knew the technology’s functionality would have to change. While some older adults might be totally comfortable requesting a Lyft ride for themselves through the app, others, like those who are less familiar with smartphones or have vision impairments, may not. So the company partnered with senior-focused, third-party groups to help them coordinate Lyft rides outside the app, via phone calls or text messages.
One particularly successful partnership has been with Best Buy Health. Seniors can purchase a Lively Jitterbug phone and services at Best Buy or Lively.com, which has been configured to easily connect customers directly to Care Advisors. These operators can call a locksmith or a tow truck, let a loved one know a customer is OK, or call a car through Lyft. When a Lively caller requests a Lyft ride, the Care Advisor stays on the line with them, confirming the price, giving updates on their driver’s ETA, and letting them know the make, model, license plate, and name of the driver who will provide the Lyft ride they requested. They can help older adults get anywhere — to physical therapy, the grocery store, or bingo night at the community center.
“We know that providing easier access to transportation can have a direct impact on health outcomes,” says Chemu Lang’at, chief operating officer of Best Buy Health. “We are empowering the active aging community to live independently.”
Despite its reputation for contributing to loneliness, well-designed tech can actually create connections for older adults, online or in real life. And it doesn’t have to stop at video-conferencing software or rideshare. “Anything and everything can be designed to facilitate and support personal connections,” Dolva says. “I would love to see it taken further.”
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