By Kimberly Hartmere, Product Manager, K4Connect – Every day, all over the world, social isolation and loneliness happen more than most of us truly realize. Social isolation occurs when people distance themselves from friends/family psychologically, physically, or both. Sometimes this can happen selectively, but most often social isolation occurs as a result of circumstances older adults cannot control or fix on their own. Much has been published via medical journals and case studies proving just how harmful social isolation can be over prolonged periods.
According to data published through AARP, isolation in adults 50 and older happens as a result of a series of circumstances and factors at different levels. The main causes driving isolation include:
- Living alone
- Death of a significant other
- Mobility or sensory impairment
- Major life transitions
- Low income
- Limited resources
- Being a caregiver for someone with a severe impairment
- Psychological or cognitive vulnerabilities
- Rural areas
- Unsafe areas
- Inaccessible neighborhood or community
- Language barriers
The impacts of social isolation may surprise you. The health risks associated with prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day! In addition, a study published by BMJ Journals noted that the risks are comparable to obesity, lack of exercise and high blood pressure. Several case studies point to prolonged isolation’s association with cognitive decline and mental health conditions such as depression and dementia.
Connect2Affect.org, a website created by AARP Foundation, provides us with some interesting facts on the size and scope of social isolation:
- 51% of people 75 and older live alone
- Research shows a 26% increased risk of death due to subjective feeling of loneliness
- 6 million adults 65 and older have a disability that prevents them from leaving their homes without help
- Research from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 43% of older adults report feelings of loneliness.
Joseph Lindoe recently shared his experience with social isolation, following a personal experiment in which he spent seven days inside a small UK apartment with no phone, no internet, no friends. Joseph also elected not to leave his apartment for the entire week. This project was an attempt to bring awareness to older adults and isolation. By the third day, he noted overwhelming feelings of entrapment and despair. You can read about his experience here, but imagine what it must be like for those who have no other options.
So, how can we help?
First, start by increasing our awareness of social isolation. Can you imagine someone coming to you tomorrow and taking your keys away from you? Or taking your medication away and telling you they’ll hand it to you when it’s time for you to take it. Think about trying to enjoy a great book, but your poor vision makes reading nearly impossible. Or picture being in your home alone, with nobody to talk to or touch for more than a week. You might not even be able to get outside to take a walk and connect with neighbors.
There are many different ways to help aging adults combat their loneliness and feelings of isolation. Many older adults have lost so much of their independence they are left with memories of the life they once knew. Things that were once so important to them are taken away, such as the ability to drive, go to church, read a book, or even managing their own finances. Here are a few ways in which you can be sure you’re giving an older adult something to look forward to by helping them get involved:
- Volunteering in senior centers and church
- Writing letters
- In-home visits
- Planning an outing to go to a local museum or a movie.
- Including them in decisions involving their own care and well-being can make them feel like they have some control over part of their life
Among the ways to combat loneliness, technology is starting to play a major role in helping to bridge the gap of interactions that older adults need. Here’s a list of ideas that seniors all over the world are beginning to adopt more and more:
- Phone Calls – This is probably the most common one. Whether it’s just a voice call or video call, hearing from someone you love can instantly brighten their day. Many seniors still have landlines but their grandchildren are much more likely to have cell phones to call and check in.
- Photo sharing – Everyone loves to see photos of their friends and families. Older adults are no exception! Looking at photos on a device can bring a smile to someone’s face and help them feel like they’re included in their families lives just by knowing what they’ve been up to.
- Tablets – Equipped with apps and programs geared toward seniors, tablets can increase communication with friends and family by using voice or video calls, be a device to share and receive photos, challenge their brains and pass the time by playing games, and help them find local events and things to do within their communities. Tablets are a great way to help seniors engage with their community and their loved ones. Many senior housing communities across the country are adopting technology and solutions to help older adults be more involved in their community and with their friends and families on the outside. Staff can also have more time to focus on the residents, giving them more social interaction, because some of their daily tasks and processes can be streamlined with technology and onto the tablet.
- Social Media – Connecting with children and grandchildren on facebook, skype or instagram can be a great way for a grandmother to passively see photos and posts their grandchildren make and feel like a part of their lives by knowing what their hobbies and interests are.
- The Internet – Logging on to send emails to friends and family, playing games online, and finding community resources through senior center websites are easy ways to help utilize all that is out there for seniors to do.
- Music on a device – Listening to their favorite songs or radio station can take them down a walk on memory lane and help them to remember good times. Music has been proven over and over again to help in many different areas of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and depression.
- Call Support Lines – Companies like The Silver Line, a UK based charity, and the Friendship Line, a US based company, are helping older individuals by giving them a place to call and have a chat with someone when they’re feeling lonely. The Friendship Line says they specialize in lonely, depressed, isolated, frail and/or suicidal older adults. These helplines are wonderful for older adults who may live in rural areas or have trouble getting out of their house to participate in community events.
- Transportation – Many cities offer rides for seniors through the community, allowing them to get out and engage with others. Whether it be for doctor appointments, church, social events, or just getting out to go shopping, it is a great resource for seniors to gain some of their independence back when they may have lost the ability to drive. By not having to rely on friends and family to always drive them places, they can take back control of arranging a ride when they need it, rather than feel they are over asking for favors.
- Robotic Pets – Several companies offer robotic pets to help combat loneliness and give seniors who may be suffering from dementia a way to feel needed and comforted. Dogs, cats, and even seals are some of the pets that seniors are befriending across the country in senior living communities that specialize in dementia care. Just giving a senior a purpose can really go a long way in helping them to feel needed and less isolated.
While many of these things can be daunting to a senior who feels less than tech savvy, at K4Connect, we are creating solutions to serve and empower older adults with easy to use smart home solutions, health and wellness applications and ways to connect with family and friends all in one application. We’ve found across the board that many older adults don’t necessarily dislike technology, they just don’t identify with technology that has been designed for someone in their teens or twenties!
Our first product, K4Community, is specifically designed for the residents of senior living communities, as well as the staff that support them. With future plans to introduce K4Home for those we serve who live in their own homes, we’re determined to reach as many people in need, as quickly as possible. Of all the ways K4Community helps older adults stay connected and live simpler, healthier, and happier lives, some of my favorites are:
- By integrating all of the products and applications required to automate a home, socialize with family and friends, manage schedules, keep track of the weather, play fun games and even set and track goals for health and wellness into one single application that has been designed for and with seniors, we have found the majority of them actively use it – and love it!
- In addition to staying in touch with loved ones, seniors within a community can enjoy a community calendar and schedule of events, menus, community photos, notices and alerts, community wide news, and even a directory of residents where they can message or call one another from the comfort of their apartment.
- At K4Connect, we take seniors trust and safety seriously and have developed a secure invitation only for connection between residents, family and friends. No one has to worry about spam emails or robo calls that target and often take advantage of an older adult.
- A free Guest app which makes it simple for families who enjoy different platforms, like iOS and Android, to use our app to connect with their loved one in a community regardless of what platform they use.
Social isolation is a sad and frustrating event in an adult’s life. It can be unexpected and take older children who are caring for their parent by surprise. But the problem can be solved and even prevented. Reaching out to community leaders who specialize in aging adults can help you find the resources that are available to them and even for their caregivers. Finding a group or hobby they enjoy can really go along way into giving them a sense of purpose again. But it’s important not to underestimate the power of technology when thinking about ways to enhance a senior’s interactions with friends and family and supplement their social life. There are challenges associated with technology and older adults, like vision problems, hearing loss, health conditions, being skeptical about the need for technology or about their ability to learn to use it. However, with patience, support and the right technologies, older adults can learn to adopt technologies that have been designed with them in mind!