Loneliness

The Loneliness Epidemic: Tech can help but so can we.

You’d imagine living in residential aged care, surrounded by hundreds of other people, staff and visitors in and out all the time, a hub of activity at your fingertips, would ward off any chance of loneliness. But it’s quite the opposite, particularly for residents suffering from dementia. Loneliness is a very real thing and doesn’t correlate with being alone.

The loneliness epidemic is rife in our community, despite cities growing and population rising, more and more people are suffering from loneliness. And researchers are worried. Because loneliness is not only a mental health issue, recent reports from the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) have shown that loneliness, otherwise referred to as “perceived isolation”, is as harmful to the elderly as obesity and heart disease. Some reports suggesting that feeling lonely can be more harmful than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

It seems crazy, but it’s true. The health care industries are now seeing loneliness as a serious public health problem, and the term––an epidemic, even.

With new studies come new strategies and it’s rather exciting seeing some of the scientific and social strategies being put forward to help with the loneliness epidemic, particularly in the Aged Care industry. And being an emotional state of being, the social, tech and practical developments in combatting loneliness bare heart-warming foundations.

One of the latest tools being developed in Sweden is the perfect example of this.

Memory Lane was created by Accenture Interactive, the design and digital arm of the global consultancy, Accenture, and in conjunction with Swedish energy supplier Stockholm Exergi, who are better known for their efforts in sustainable energy.

Memory Lane is a prototype for a voice-assisted artificial intelligence software that acts as a ghost-writer for the elderly, translating conversations into written and audio biographies. The software also acts as a tool to keep the lonely company by prompting them to recall memories and keeping track of their daily activities, likes and dislikes, the same way a carer would. The machine then uses that data to preserve it’s subject’s memories for future generations in the form of a collated biography. It’s brilliant.

What makes Memory Lane remarkable is that it starts by asking the user general questions about their life, but then it responds to the answers by delving deeper into a topic. Developers say it has the ability to involve its subject in a human conversation by using a thing called a “memory graph” to store and organise data that may have been collected over several days or weeks of conversations with its user. The memory graph structures and sorts of memories into chronology and importance––replicating a real human relationship, while recording a life story.

It is probably even more satisfying than some “real” human interactions the elderly have. Actually, I even think I wouldn’t mind a chat with a memory graph for some days!

Though miracle machines like this are hopefully going to become a very real part of the cure for loneliness, there are some good old-fashioned tools that residents are probably quite comfortably responsive to, and that we can engage in without too much trouble.

Things such as asking questions about a resident’s life before being in care, or asking about their family, pets, or current interests. And the most important thing is that you remember the answers and follow up the conversation the next day, and the next day, and the next. It doesn’t even have to take up too much time, but the quality conversation can make a massive difference to a lonely person’s day––and their health. And most likely, such interactions will also help make the carer’s day more meaningful and less lonely.

No one’s asking anyone to write a biography, but at work––and in life––helping to make someone feel less lonely will help tackle this epidemic and help the whole community in the bigger picture.

 

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