How technology could help battle the loneliness that comes with aging


Recent studies show that loneliness, especially among the elderly, may be a bigger health risk than obesity or smoking. One journal reports a 26 percent increase in mortality as a result of being lonely in the United States. Much like the revelation that “sitting is the new smoking,” this is a shocking wake-up call.

Another shocker was relayed to me by a family member who works with elderly individuals when they are moving to smaller quarters. Some of those she has worked with have had hundreds of unopened QVC or Home Shopping Network in the living areas of their homes. Battling loneliness, many of these folks frequently called into the shopping networks because their telesales teams were so gregarious with customers. It was a communications link to the outside world. They got one more communications opportunity when the delivery man came to drop of the package.  No need to open the package, just repeat the loneliness strategy with a new purchase.

Meanwhile, entire families sometimes sit on the couch, their faces each glued to their respective smart phone. My personal experience with the elderly is that watching the social media-obsessed in their families may even further contribute to the feeling of isolation.

In essence, seniors may be becoming even more lonely because the people they used to talk with are now entirely focused on texting and posting when they’re in their company. Technology is a double-edged sword of both reducing and creating loneliness depending on the setting.

This maps with some of my previous work with smart cities where rapid increases in online availability, and decreased usage of paper forms, often further isolates the elderly and disadvantaged who cannot engage digitally with city services. Rapid digital transformation can rapidly increase isolation.

Not too long ago, I dropped the two grannies in my family off at the airport after both spent a week with us during the Thanksgiving holiday. Both had stripped down mobile phones — one with a flip phone, the other with a very basic, no frills Android device. Both see them as a necessary evil. Neither use a laptop or a tablet. One is totally obsessed with her Kindle and as such reads five books a week. The other opts for hardbound books checked out from the library.

Most of their dearest friends and family of the same age have passed. In lieu of interactive online communications, Kindles and old fashioned books are their hedge against loneliness and isolation, but only to a point.

But all members of the elderly population cannot be painted with a broad brush. Large numbers engaged with technology at an earlier stage in their lives than most, and border on being classified as digital natives. Others were late to the party but have become infatuated with technology that has a purpose. Some simply want to view photos posted by family and friends. Others want to embrace e-commerce that enables them to have food or consumer goods delivereto them when they are no longer able to drive.

The most compelling developments have been in the area of interactivity with computers and voice activated devices. Surprisingly, some involve the use of more sophisticated technology than what you would expect an average senior to be able to engage with.

The most impressive is from One Caring Team, which aims to reduce loneliness by enabling contact with family and “listeners.” These “listeners establish and build one-on-one relationships, identify and address life issues, provide needed emotional support, and reconnect loved ones with life.” They will call older adults 1-3 times a week depending on the subscription plan the user desires. The service even leverages virtual reality (VR) technology to reduce pain, anxiety and depression with a specific focus on helping treat dementia.

The other loneliness-battling technology is an Alexa Show-driven feature which permits the ability to “drop-in” to other Alexa Show users for a screen-to-screen visit. One might argue that this can be done with FaceTime or other smart device application but, despite some of privacy concerns, the advantage of Alexa Show is the ability to drive the application entirely by voice when there is an inability or lack of desire to use a keyboard. This solves a common issue among the elderly. One simply says “Alexa Drop In” with the name of the target user.


21st century healthcare organisations

Are your digital services leaving behind your oldest customers?

The device as the persona


  1. […] share many of the same challenges. Perhaps the greatest is how both are addressing the large aging population found in densely populated areas. In addition to how healthcare providers accommodate the rapid […]

  2. […] detailed in an earlier blog, many international studies show that boredom can rank higher than diabetes as a leading cause of death among the elderly. Technologies that keep the elderly connected will […]

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