Tackling loneliness with technology

By Graham Allen and David Rees | 06 September 2017

International research cited by Public Health England has shown that loneliness can be as harmful to a person’s health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This negative impact is not limited to physical wellbeing, with other research highlighted by the ‘Campaign to End Loneliness’ finding that loneliness puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline and increased mental health challenges.

With Age UK reporting that 1.2m older people are ‘chronically lonely,’ this associated ill health makes loneliness a significant social problem. Although there is no easy fix, as part of its role within the campaign, Age UK has identified technology as having potential to help keep older people socially active and engaged. This potential has now been put to the test in a recent project in Hampshire, which has shown some promising results.

Some 50,000 Hampshire residents over the age of 65 are categorised as ‘mildly’ lonely and a further 20,000 as ‘intensely’ lonely. To tackle this, Hampshire CC worked with PA Consulting to pilot two types of technology with 56 older people (the oldest aged 101). The project’s aim was to see if using the devices could help participants better connect with family, friends and their local communities, especially in rural areas.

The pilot ran from February 2016 to March 2017, and the participants were invited to take part following discussions with GP surgeries, the voluntary sector, housing providers and local pharmacies.

The first device, known as Breezie, is a tablet computer that has been specially modified for use by older people, presenting information and applications specifically tailored to the individual using it. The other is Speakset, a box that allows any TV with a SCART connection to become a secure video conferencing facility. The project was supported by a team from the council’s library home volunteers’ service and Test Valley Community Voluntary Services.

The participants included a woman whose husband had died recently and whose own visual impairment meant she could no longer drive. She used Breezie to keep in contact with her family and to do her shopping independently online without having to rely on others to do it for her. She was very positive about its impact, concluding: ‘This means an awful lot to me. It means I am less isolated and able to look after myself.’

Another participant who used Speakset said: ‘On my 90th birthday, all my family got together and they did the candles and birthday song through the device. I saw all the family together for the very first time. A very positive experience.’

The face-to-face contact with the volunteer support during the project has also helped increase participants’ ability to identify relevant local support and services that could help them in future. Nearly a third of users said they felt better able to do this as a result of the technology and the support they received. Additionally, 65% of those on the project said they now have more contact with friends and family because of the devices. This was particularly positive for those with relatives abroad. Most encouragingly, 80% of those using the devices would recommend the technologies to others.

There are a number of lessons to be drawn from the pilot for those considering a similar approach. The first of these is that it is not always easy to identify those who are genuinely isolated. While professionals helped identify possible participants who they considered isolated, almost none of the individuals involved identified themselves as such. It was only by working with both health and community partners that it was possible to identify those who could benefit most from the project.

Second, isolated people usually have some form of technology already, such as a PC or tablet, which has often been bought by a family member as a way of keeping in contact. However, the project showed that most of them were unable to use the device to its full potential. It is critical to consider how technology is introduced and how its use is then supported.

Finally, Hampshire’s project really benefitted from the volunteer involvement, confirming the final lesson that technology is not an end in itself. Its success in helping to tackle loneliness depended on personal support – ideally support that is consistent and one-to-one.

These early lessons show that, while technology cannot solve loneliness completely, if deployed carefully and with the right support in place, it can play a valuable role in helping to reconnect older people with their families, friends, and communities. This can only be good, for the people themselves, their loved ones, and more widely for the health and social care sectors.

Graham Allen is director of adults’ health and care at Hampshire CC and David Rees is head of local government services at PA Consulting Group

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