WDYT 11/19: Can Smart Devices Help an Aging Population Deal with Social Isolation and Loneliness?

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Picture Fenway Parks “Lone Red Seat” by David is licensed under the CC-BY 2.0

Smart speakers and displays like Amazon’s Echo and Echo Show and Google’s Home are becoming a regular feature in many homes. This is especially true among the younger, tech-savvy generations. However, consumers are quickly becoming aware of the benefits for the older members of society. People are beginning to buy these devices for their parents and grandparents. These users, who may not be entirely comfortable with a smartphone or tablet, often find the simple design and operation of these devices much more approachable. The fact that most of the features are available via voice commands with no need to read a small screen or operate a frustrating on-screen keyboard makes them perfect for elderly individuals. They also offer a long list of features that fill many needs of the older generation. The ability to operate lights with voice commands and set reminders can help older users avoid falls and even remember to take medication

But, what if these devices could also help battle a different problem faced by older adults? In our modern, hyper-connected world, the elderly population is becoming more cut off from others. According to research from Age UK, over a million older adults in England are chronically lonely. And, even more startling, 200,000 of them have not had a conversation with friends or family for an entire month.

How can smart speakers and displays help? Their standard features may offer several solutions to the problem of loneliness among older adults. With the currently available features, seniors can easily place calls to other smart device users and even phones without having to pick up a phone and dial. Amazon’s Echo devices feature a “Drop-In” feature so that family members can check-in and say hello to a loved one without them even needing to answer.

It may be time for the development of new skills and apps that could take the idea even further. What if older adults could use their devices to easily connect with others with similar interests? Could developers find a way to make it simple and safe for seniors to chat with other seniors by just using their voice to initiate the call? Imagine, “Alexa, find someone who would like to chat about bird watching.” Or, “Hey Google, check to see if there are any army veterans who want to talk.”

Skills and apps would not need to be focused necessarily on talking to others. There are many ways to deal with loneliness and isolation. For instance, what if an app or skill was developed to help elderly users record their memories and life stories? Sharing an oral history can be a great way to keep a mind active, they find peace in looking back and help people relive happy memories. A task like this might be too daunting using a phone, tablet, or another recorder. But, a smart device could be programmed to record and catalog these memories, making it as easy as saying, “Alexa, record this memory.”

Can technology help with the human need for connection, especially with our elderly population? What do you think?

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