How can society help cure the loneliness epidemic?

Heather Fraser
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The aged population is currently at its highest level in human history, and rising. With almost a third of the populations in the US, UK, Canada and Brazil expected to be over 60 by 2050, the impact of an ageing population and the consequences on society have been well documented. And the proportion of older citizens is even higher in Japan, Germany, Italy at 40%. But while media coverage has mainly focused on the complex and increasing health demands of the older adult, there’s one risk factor that’s often ignored – that of loneliness.

While it’s true that loneliness doesn’t discriminate by age, it’s the hidden costs associated with loneliness in this older age bracket that represent a looming major public health concern. Age UK has warned that if the problem isn’t addressed, “it can become chronic, seriously affecting people’s health and wellbeing”.

Loneliness is usually triggered by some sort of loss. For the older adult, the initiators of loss are often associated with bereavement or physical loss, such as mobility or hearing impairment. An equally important trigger is the impact of retirement where the social interaction of work is lost, as well as professional identity.

Over 9 million people in the UK – almost a fifth of the population – say they are always or often lonely

The impact of loneliness isn’t limited to the individual but extends across families and caregivers, the health system and society as a whole. From a medical perspective, loneliness is often converted into physical symptoms as a way of seeing a doctor, with frequent visits for social interaction putting a strain on limited health resources. Future solutions that foster greater connections among older adults will require better identification of those at risk. Academic institutions are actively studying a new cohort to identify traits and capabilities of ‘resilient seniors’.

So, what’s the answer to this multi-faceted challenge? Current solutions engage across all levels – individual, community and national – with technology support ranging from minimal to advanced complexity. Individual solutions tend to be focused at encouraging social interaction and shared experiences. US-based Rendever, for example, uses VR to create virtual visual experiences, transporting users to places that they can no longer physically visit. Their ‘expanded world’ trials have been found to produce a 40% increase in happiness among care-home residents, sparking memories and new conversations.

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At a national level, the UK appointed the first ever Minister for Loneliness in 2018 to look at the problem from a strategic perspective. The UK has also recently started piloting its Call&Check solution, a community-based initiative whereby postal workers augment the existing postal delivery infrastructure to provide a simple health check of vulnerable older people at a personal level. This innovative scheme has successfully been supporting older residents in Jersey for the last five years. At the other end of the technology spectrum, the University of California San Diego and IBM Research are collaborating on a research initiative to allow seniors to age in place – within their own home and community. By leveraging a mix of technology, artificial intelligence and life sciences knowledge, the goal is to enhance the quality of life and independence for the older adult.

Lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day

But no single organisation can solve this issue on its own. It’s going to take a ‘new kind of village’ – a societal shift that helps older people feel more connected with others in their community, that rebuilds their social capital. We need to drive insights that help detect loneliness earlier and intervene more rapidly and effectively. This will require stakeholders from many industries to play their part in building a better-connected community for older adults. From healthcare providing active screening for early signs of loneliness, to utility companies identifying behaviour patterns that may indicate an isolation, through to automotive companies improving the individual’s mobility and engagement through self-driving vehicles.

As the demographic of the world’s population rapidly continues to change, what part will your business play in building an ecosystem to prevent a loneliness epidemic among older adults?