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Tech to The Rescue

The article below appeared in the November 17  issue of Health with Perdana, a regular column in The Star by Perdana University faculty members. This week’s article is contributed by Dr. Mohamad Hasif Bin Jaafar, Manager, Research Management Centre, Perdana University and Dr. Muhammad Hibatullah Romli, Senior Lecturer, Department of Nursing and Rehabilitation, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Universiti Putra Malaysia


Loneliness among older people is becoming common. In this modern era, people are becoming busier and attached to work. Children have grown up and would choose to work or study far away from home. This has made older people to be left behind, feel disconnected from society and lack social interaction, which has led them to create a false thought of not being appreciated. This situation becomes worse when an old person  loses his/her partner, have fewer relatives or friends, and has limited contact with others. Many studies show that loneliness is associated with dementia, depression, reduced sleep quality, decreased physical activity and even premature death. Therefore, an alternative approach is required to combat loneliness in older people.

Use of technology is one of the solutions. Despite the various challenges that prevent seniors from using computer technology, including computer anxiety, research has reported that an increasing number of older people are now exposed to and use technology in their daily life. There are many types of new technologies which help older people maintain and develop social support networks such as the mobile phone, computer, internet, email, and social media including Facebook and WhatsApp. These technologies provide a new way to interact with others, encourage older people to communicate more with their friends and family members, and provide access to a wide variety of information and community resources. Studies have found that these technologies benefit older people by preventing loneliness.

Not only can technology facilitate human interaction, it can also simulate it. Technology can make older people feel as if they are spending time with others. Video sharing websites such as YouTube, Dailymotion, and Metacafe are good to reduce loneliness. There are a lot of videos that can help older people feel like they are spending time with others such as watching news, following figures that provide advice on common issues, role-playing and even watching people play video games. These diverse genres of videos also have a lot of online communities that can help to provide additional support and interaction.

Video-calling platforms such as Skype, Zoom, FaceTime and WhatsApp may also help in reducing loneliness by linking people together. These video platforms allow older people to connect with people who may live in another city or country. For those who have limited mobility, these applications are very useful.

Several companies offer robotic pets to give older people who are at the risk of loneliness. These include dogs, cats and even seals. The cats, for example, move by using batteries and have built-in sensors. They are created in a way that makes them look realistic. They can open and close their eyes, lift their paws and move their head and body. If you pet them on their belly or backside, they will let out a “purr”.

With an application such as Grab, older people can get out and engage with others. Whether it is for hospital appointments, social events, religious events, or shopping for groceries, it is a great resource for older people to be independent. By not having to rely on friends and family to always drive them to places, they can arrange a ride when they need it, rather than feel they are over asking for favours. For those who can drive, they can use Waze, Apple Map or Google Map to go to places that they are not familiar with.

Nowadays, researchers have developed several loneliness interventions. Some of the interventions are call support lines or telephone befriending services whereby older people can call them when they are feeling lonely. Other interventions involve the use of the internet, social media and email. Despite all the results show promising results to combat loneliness, several studies suggest that face-to-face interventions such as video calls are more useful to improve loneliness.

By engaging with technology, older people can easily seek information, especially news and health information. Older people who use technology are likely to be more alert, useful and tend to seek new skills and technology. They also form a community where people come together to mingle around, sharing the same hobbies so that they do not feel isolated. Researchers and industry players have the responsibility to make technology friendlier to older people.