This past month, loneliness has been a key theme in news – in particular, the detrimental impact that social isolation can have on a person’s health and wellbeing. From research showing that loneliness is as bad as a long term illness to reading that seniors are booking doctor appointments just for company; these articles are, to me, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is encouraging to see that more research is being done in this area. As more of us acknowledge the fact that loneliness is a chronic issue, we become more motivated to understand the issue, and more driven to combat it. On the other hand, though, the facts and figures highlighted over the past month are heartbreaking, and expose just how severe the issue is. It is hard to believe that we have allowed ourselves to become a society where half a million people aged over 60 do not speak to anyone for six days a week, and where a quarter of armed forces veterans feel suicidal. It’s time to admit that more can be done to help; because the effects of chronic isolation are far-reaching, and dangerous.
We all have our own experiences of feeling lonely, and everyone knows that loneliness can manifest in different ways. What we don’t fully understand, though, is the way that chronic loneliness affects the mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of older generations. When creating KOMP, our new product for seniors, we knew we had to begin by identifying some of the key elements of chronic isolation in this age group. After almost a year of research, prototyping and testing, we believe we have made a product that will help those who are unable (or unwilling) to use existing technology. We wanted to take seniors online. To give them access to their entire family through a tool that has been created on their terms.
From speaking with seniors, we found that one of the first things that characterises social isolation is limited contact with family and friends. If, as the news is reporting, seniors are having less and less contact with people, it logically follows that they crave company – many of us nowadays partially fulfill that craving online. Technology cannot replace company, but it can be a facilitator of social interaction. If we see something funny on our way home, we quickly take a picture and share it with the friend, partner or family member it reminded us of. Being able to welcome seniors into that social bubble could alter their lives a great deal.
The loss of support networks is another important factor to consider when trying to understand senior loneliness. With fewer family or friends to rely on, any one of us could quickly begin to feel alone, and fear being seen as a burden. There are several studies proving loneliness to be as dangerous as smoking. Loneliness can cause depression, anxiety, dementia, substance abuse, even things like manic-depression and schizophrenia. The inability to, or fear of, speaking to someone about these feelings makes the overall situation worse. The mental health of seniors is something that should be monitored closely, and this need alone emphasises how vital social contact is, be it physically or digitally.
We know that this is just a starting point. We have to learn to identify the ‘symptoms’ of loneliness earlier, and we need to fully understand what loneliness means for seniors before we can even begin to think on how to solve it. It is research such as the studies cited here that drive our collective knowledge forward. The idea that ‘prevention is better than a cure’ is paramount here. The more we break the taboo loneliness has become, the more we will begin to truly tackle this epidemic.