Loneliness and social isolation

How can we use technology more effectively in order to address issues such as loneliness, isolation and mental health problems in old age? That is just one of the questions facing the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in its ongoing enquiry into protecting cognitive ability and mental health processes in old age.

The wide-ranging enquiry has, at the time of writing in February 2020, already considered the way in which biomedical processes such as inflammation can contribute to the ageing process. Further enquiries aim to build an understanding of how these biomedical processes can also affect cognitive ability and mental health as well as exploring whether factors such as isolation, loneliness, stress and sleeping issues can contribute to these outcomes.

The enquiry will then go on to explore whether technology can help to address the issues identified, in particular whether “technological interventions can reduce loneliness and improve social connectedness for older people?”  It is perhaps worth remembering that loneliness and isolation is not confined to the elderly. Farming has in the past been singled out as an occupation which can lead to feelings of isolation and associated problems. And interestingly an experiment in Ireland is seeing Kerry farmers visit the elderly in their area in a bid to help both groups. However, the growth of self-employment and home-working has resulted in many more individuals potentially spending much of their day in virtual isolation.

This is perhaps where the smart use of technology can make a measurable difference; in particular to the way in which the work/life balance is managed. The last thing that those working either on their own or in small groups want is to find that their evenings and weekends are taken up in administration tasks, thereby further increasing their isolation. Making the best use of technology in order to manage or contract out routine tasks can help to ensure that free time is truly free, and therefore can be used to best effect, perhaps in social activities such as seeing friends or taking part in a group activity.

Why spend your evenings or lunch hours phoning clients to remind them about appointments when an automated SMS text could not only act as an initial reminder but could sit on a client’s phone as a permanent memory jogger? Why spend hours in filing and retrieving client records when a secure online patient record system could enable records to be available virtually at the touch of a button? And why lose your evenings in generating invoices when secure card processing allied to card pre-authorising could result in faster payments without the associated paperwork?

There is no doubt that social isolation is a cause for concern amongst the elderly. However we should not ignore the challenges which working in virtual isolation can bring to individuals across the working population. Technology can make a difference, not just in helping people to connect virtually but also in freeing up much needed time, thereby enabling which individuals to step away from their isolation and take part in an active social life.