Social isolation afflicts many people, including 10% to 43% of older adults (1). How can we live independently, while maintaining an active social life and good cognitive health? Technology may be part of the answer.
A study published by Statistics Canada reveals that 68% of those 65 years of age and older used the internet at least a few times a month. In addition, among 65- to 74-year-olds, internet use rose from 65% to 81% from 2013 to 2016, while among those aged 75 and older usage rose from 35% to 50% over these three years (2). Internet access encourages the practice of certain hobbies (for example, playing online, listening to music, and planning trips), helps to maintain connections with loved ones, and helps people keep abreast of current events. But other technologies requiring access to the internet can also contribute to optimal aging such as cognitive-skills games, virtual self-help groups or smoking-cessation apps.
A systematic review of 53 studies published from 2002 to 2014 addresses the issue of social integration of older adults who use technologies, and identifies various resources and strategies (1).
What the research tell us
Do you know what 'ambient intelligence' is? Some companies use it to collect data on consumption patterns to improve their products and services. But ambient intelligence is much more than that; it's also a digital environment with several adaptive electronic devices that are aware of the users’ presence. Some of these technologies have been designed to promote independent living at home by helping older adults accomplish their daily tasks, promote cognitive stimulation, strengthen emotional bonds, promote physical activity, and also promote effective health care by monitoring vital signs and relaying information to parents and caregivers.
The studies identified in this systematic review reveal that technologies that use ambient intelligence account for 62% of the technologies used to stimulate older adults' social participation, provide personal support, and support the delivery of care.
Almost a third of studies mention the use of social networks as a mechanism to break social isolation: Facebook, the virtual world Second Life, etc. Networking sites and other such applications are becoming increasingly popular with older adults, who use them as a means of communication with family members and friends.
New and emerging technologies come in a variety of forms: remote-controlled robots providing a physical presence for older adults; screens with dynamic content; wireless sensor networks in smart homes that control vital signs; mobile apps gathering information about physical activities done outside the home; interactive video games enhancing social interaction with family members and friends; and virtual environments where users socialize through representations of themselves (known as 'avatars').
The review found that most electronic devices designed to break social isolation remain expensive and require complex adjustments or special adaptations to install them in older adults' homes. Social networking sites and dynamic screens are recommended instead because internet access is cheaper than before, applications can be installed on several types of devices (computers, tablets, laptops), their interfaces can be user-friendly and intuitive, and they allow for interactions in real time. The future is promising for some technologies that will be able to 'learn' from the data collected, such as recognizing patterns in the movements and language of their users, and thus alert caregivers and health professionals if problems are detected.
Technologies play an increasingly important role in the lives of older adults. What was once science fiction now seems to be a reality. But remember, if technologies can help break the social isolation of older adults and improve the delivery of care, we need to ensure that they are aligned with their needs, values and preferences. And of course, these technologies will never completely replace human contact.