Can technology make the elderly less lonely?
The Government wants tech firms to devise smart solutions
Onestatistic more than any other underlines the scale of the loneliness epidemic in the UK: two-fifths of all older people (around 3.9 million) say their television is their main source of company. That bleak figure came from an Age UK survey in 2014, since when the problem of loneliness has been widely acknowledged by charities and public institutions.
The Government thinks technology can help ease the crisis. It has launched a competition for tech companies to offer innovative solutions to some of society’s biggest problems, including chronic loneliness. Each winning company will receive up to £500,000 to develop their ideas into prototypes. The money will come from the £20m Govtech fund, announced by Prime Minister Theresa May last November as a way to encourage private companies to work with the public sector.
It’s an admirable scheme that might produce devices like the Elliq, described by its creators as an “active ageing companion”. One of several ‘social robots’ hoping to capture the market, it reminds users to take medication and helps them connect to family members using video-chat tools. But will that make people feel less lonely, or leave them feeling bossed around? Its appearance doesn’t bode well: it looks more like a futuristic bedside lamp than an affable robot.
Friendlier is the new version of Sony’s Aibo robot dog (pictured below left, watch it at www.snipca.com/27845), which the company says has eyes that “sparkle with a clever twinkle”. Sales have been strong since Sony launched it in Japan in January, so it’s considering placing it on US and Chinese shelves too. Yet it costs 198,000 yen (around £1,340), which is a lot for something that can’t chase sticks in the park. Man’s best friend? Man’s best waste of money, more like.
Perhaps social media can offer solace for the lonely. It’s typically seen as a leading cause of loneliness, as people increasingly swap face-to-face interactions for emails. But in a survey last year by Gransnet ( www.gransnet.com), a social network for the over-50s, 59 per cent of respondents said social media helped them feel less lonely, while 82 per cent said talking about loneliness was much easier when online anonymously. If that sounds surprising, consider that 71 per cent of people said their family and friends would be “astonished” to find they felt lonely. There’s a reason they call loneliness the silent killer.
The popularity of social media suggests the Govtech money should be spent on networks that help people get in touch and meet in person, rather than expensive devices for the home. As well as loneliness, the competition is about tackling “rural isolation”, which is a problem too big to be solved by a talking robot that tells you when to pop your pills.
We won’t know for a while which ideas have won. The overall competition is split into five parts, each focusing on a different challenge,
including improving council services using web-connected sensors on vehicles. The loneliness competition opens in July, so come autumn we may be enthusing about a nationwide project that aims to connect people living alone.
Whatever emerges, it could save millions of pounds in social care because loneliness can trigger ill health. It’s even been linked to increased risk of dementia. With stakes this high, let’s hope sensible, practical ideas are selected, not overpriced gimmicks.