As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep through nations, with no vaccine yet available, a cohesive effort to “flatten the curve” through physical isolation has become a critically important tactic to slow the transmission rate. The goal is to reduce the numbers of people getting sick at the same time to prevent local health systems from being overwhelmed. This is particularly necessary for the elderly, who are at much greater risk of severe complications. But these public health isolation measures come at a cost: disruption in our lives and social isolation.
Loneliness in the era of social distancing has become a public health crisis in its own right. Ironically, the elderly, who stand to gain the most from social distancing, are also among the communities most impacted by the isolation. We need real solutions that can address this issue, and there is a tremendous opportunity for technology to play a part.
Humans are social by nature, and depriving us of that social connection is harmful. Across every age and demographic, society is starting to see the first-hand effects of long-term isolation. But for the elderly, the “loneliness epidemic” was a growing concern well before the first confirmed case of COVID-19. Social isolation and loneliness are much more common and have greater impact than previously realized.
Social isolation causes real suffering, and can lead not only to depression and anxiety, but to related health problems such as cognitive decline and heart disease. People with strong social bonds are 50 percent less likely to die over a given period of time than those who have fewer social connections. One study estimated the mortality impact of loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, which is similar in magnitude to well-established risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity. This does not even count the social and economic consequences, like the heavy burden on caregivers to provide support.
Fortunately, there is a growing body of science that points the way toward addressing these issues. The best way to provide actual solutions is to understand the bigger variables in play that precipitate loneliness. In older adults, social isolation almost always goes hand-in-hand with some form of loss. This includes physical losses, such as visual and hearing impairments or impaired mobility, including the loss of mobility through transportation (e.g. driving a car).
Over time, many people experience the loss of spouses, family and friends, while seeing their own roles in society reduced or ignored. They struggle to adjust to these changes and make new connections, and often refuse help or deny these feelings to avoid the social stigmas and diminished social value associated with aging.
Loneliness is a multi-faceted challenge to address, even in the best of times. In times of uncertainty, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenge is even greater, and no one organization can solve it on its own. The IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) researched how loneliness directly impacts personal, economic and social well-being in older adults—outlining the major role technology plays in driving positive change.
Providers of health care and social services should consider several tech-related strategies to foster greater connection amongst elderly communities. While technology cannot replace in-person social interactions, if done well, technology can be part of the solution.
Customized, relevant content and services are essential: To successfully build and enhance social capital, we need to tailor policies and programs to the interests of the individual and the specifics of their communities.
Governmental, municipal and community-based agencies, hospital networks and telecommunications vendors alike can quickly build cost-effective solutions by partnering with technology companies that have already paved the way in cognitive IoT for healthcare platforms. These platforms use personalized features that can meet individual needs, such as natural language, vision recognition and data integration capabilities.
Solutions like Watson Care Manager have the potential to help clinical systems and government agencies focus on person-centered care. Such an approach allows care teams to assess social and clinical needs, create individualized care plans, refer to a variety of targeted programs and community-based providers, and capture and make meaningful data available to all stakeholders. This can include determining food, safety, mental health and emergency assistance needs for the elderly; directing them to community care providers and other systems of support for food, medication and in-home care; and tracking and engaging people virtually to monitor and support their home care needs.
Personalization must take priority over simplification: Solutions should be able to adapt to the wide variation of technical fluency within the aging community. It’s critical to debunk the myth that older adults cannot or will not adapt to new technology; this is a common and inaccurate stereotype.
This week, for example, IBM and the University College London (UCL) launched the IBM Industry Exchange Network (IBM IXN), an international educational partnership that aims to develop experimental R&D programs to give students worldwide direct access to new programs in emerging technology sectors. IBM IXN is creating a virtual reality application that uses IBM Watson to create a customized social virtual reality experience tailored for elderly users, which has the potential to help address the loneliness epidemic at this pivotal time.
Scalability is essential: While there are many successful pilots and programs in place, they operate in relative isolation and require a high degree of customization. This limits their ability to expand and serve more people. Future solutions need to offer both ease of customization and cost-effective scalability.
As no single organization can solve this issue alone, solutions need to be designed to keep people connected to a network of stakeholders and service providers efficiently and quickly, including infrastructure providers, government agencies, and healthcare and advocacy organizations. Insights from shared data will make a crucial difference here.
In this unprecedented moment, business, government and communities must come together to understand the root causes of loneliness, especially among aging populations, and quickly pull together solutions that can help now. It’s imperative that broader countermeasures are put in place to further protect our most vulnerable not only during the current global health crisis, but in post-pandemic times as well.