Beyond text and images: Tackling loneliness with technology

Dr Eiman Kanjo is a Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Eiman has written some of the earliest papers in the research area of mobile sensing and she currently carries out work in the areas of technologies and data science for health & Wellbeing, Smart cities, Environmental Monitoring and its impact of health, and wellbeing monitoring. She tweets @eimankanjo She will be speaking at the Loneliness in Older People and its Impact on Health event on 13 June at Wellcome Collection in London.

Loneliness is a sad and frustrating event in anyone’s life, however its impact is more damaging for older people. 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 connecting with their loved ones.

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.

In general, older adults do not necessarily dislike one form of technology or another, however, they are sometimes distrustful about the need for technology or about their ability to utilise it. Also, sometimes older citizens don’t identify with technology that has been designed for someone in their teens or twenties. Furthermore, older adults might struggle with a particular technology due to health problems, a lack of mobility, hearing loss or vision problems.

That’s why one form of technology or another cannot fit all. There is a need to explore a variety of tools and interaction methods across a number of modalities beyond text and images.

What we can share at the moment are merely words and images, not a hug or a warm hand shake. Most of the current social technologies don’t employ the sense of touch, warmth, or olfaction for communication.  We are reduced to a few lines of text or a sequence of images. These interactions alone are not enough to ward off loneliness.

Here we visit some of the recent attempts to go beyond the traditional use of technology to tackle loneliness (along with links to the original articles):

  1. Horticulture therapy employs plants and gardening activities in therapeutic and rehabilitation activities and could be utilised to improve the quality of life of the aging population. A project called “Grass” has utilised plants made of both real grass and optic fibre grass to allow users to mediate and explore different nature sounds (water, wind, birds, and crickets) and LED light patterns, in response to gentle touching, stroking and caressing.
  1. Virtual Reality is one technology that can bring various life experiences to older people. It draws on multiple senses — using visual, audio, touch and even scent — to help the participant become emotionally invested. Many people today are familiar with immersive virtual reality. This is a multi-sensory, often highly interactive, platform that enables people to be “present” in the virtual environment — to the extent that their body and mind believe what is happening is real. People can interact with their loved ones or visit a historical place from the comfort of their home.
  1. Another prototype was developed consisting of a wooden picture frame with a touch screen display surrounded by LEDs and an asynchronous messaging capability that could be activated through tactile interaction. When the user touched the frame, a pre-set message was sent to a designated family member. The family member would then receive an email to indicate that their relative was thinking of them, and would be able to access a website on which they could record a video message. The video message was then transmitted back to the photo frame, the LEDs would illuminate to indicate a new message had been received and through touching the frame the video message would being to play.

The examples above are positive steps towards exploring the potential of technology in tackling loneliness, however we feel, there is more to be done.

By employing tactile user experience and an unobtrusive communication tool, along with sensing and Artificial Technology, it should be possible to:

  1. Sense and quantify when a user is in need of social interaction
  2. Connect those who are feeling lonely with peers who a shared interest, and allow them to disconnect whenever they want to.
  3. The solution should enable easy and natural social interaction (e.g. by squeezing a social ball or pressing a social button)

Whether technology can effectively predict and mitigate loneliness in the long term isn’t known, but by exploring various technological solutions, we will be able to come up with personalised and adaptive technological interventions that understand older peoples’ personal needs and give them full control of their social interaction, with support from their family if needed.

Register for Loneliness in Older People and its Impact on Health event on 13 June at Wellcome Collection in London

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