Could Technology Be the Key to Reducing Social Isolation as We Age?

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By Walter R. Boot, PhD (Associate Professor of Psychology, Florida State University)

This is the second blog post on the theme of aging and social isolation. Read the previous blog post here.

As discussed in the previous blog post, many older adults live alone and living alone increases the risk for social isolation and loneliness, which can lead to depression, poor cognition, and even increased mortality risk1. Older women may be especially at risk; 34% of women 65 years of age or older live alone, compared to 20% of men2.

Many factors contribute to social isolation, including the death of a partner and decreased mobility due to age-related changes in ability and health. For example, changes in perceptual and cognitive abilities cause some older adults to cease driving which increases the risk of social isolation, especially in rural communities that may not have adequate public transportation.

Social programs and community support are crucial components of efforts to reduce older adults’ social isolation and boost their support network. However, demands on these programs may be strained as the U.S. undergoes population aging. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by the year 2050 the number of older Americans will increase from 48 million to 88 million3.

Can technology help reduce isolation and increase social support? Can social media platforms provide meaningful social engagement? Can the internet effectively help older adults living alone find and access important community and national resources, allowing them live independently longer? Any technology-based solution must overcome what many refer to as the age-related digital divide. Older adults are much less likely to own and use newer technologies.

Currently in the United States, 88% of younger adults (18-29 years old) use a social media platform4. This is in stark contrast to the only 37% of older adults (65 years or older) who use social media. Across the most popular social media platforms there is a striking digital divide; older adults are significantly less likely to use these services (see Figure 1). These statistics may not be surprising; while some age cohorts report near universal internet usage and smartphone ownership, 34% of older adults do not use the internet, and 54% do not own a smartphone. Social media usage in many cases can be limited by older adults not adopting the most common platforms.

blog-social-isolation-chart

A number of barriers make older adults less likely to adopt technology that could help reduce the effects of social isolation. These include lack of technology proficiency, lack of experience, anxiety about technology, and the fact that many technologies are not designed for the needs, abilities, and preferences of older users. However, recent research conducted by the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement (CREATE) indicates that these barriers can be overcome, and once overcome, technology can help address problems related to social isolation.

The Personal Reminder Information and Social Management (PRISM) computer system was designed for older adults, and with input from older adults. In a randomized controlled trial, 300 older adults living along and at risk for social isolation were randomly assigned to receive the PRISM system in their home, or to a control group that received much of the same information presented by the PRISM system, but in the form of a paper binder5.

In addition to receiving the computer system, PRISM participants received training on the various functions of the system that included email, a buddy list, internet access, and local and national aging resources guides. Results indicated that after 6 months, use of the PRISM system was associated with decreased loneliness and increased perceived social support. The finding of decreased loneliness is consistent with other data indicating that older adults who go online more frequently are less lonely6.

Technology is a promising direction with respect to supporting socially isolated older adults. Traditional information and communication technologies (e.g., internet, computers, tablets, smartphones) can play an important role. Newer and emerging technologies in the future hold promise as well. For example, the emergence of autonomous vehicles may help older adults who have ceased driving to again manage the demands of the driving task with the assistance of autonomous features.

This could help them visit friends and family, attend religious services and other social gatherings, and participate in community events. In the more distant future, it is predicted that social robots may even play a role, including telepresence robots that would allow older adults to virtually visit people and places outside of their home, and companion robots to provide meaningful interactions within the home7. However, to be successful, each of these technologies will need to be designed considering older adults’ needs, abilities, and preferences.

As the population ages in the United States and around the world, social isolation of older adults, especially older adults who live alone, is a crucial challenge that requires attention. Community and social support programs are essential means to address this challenge. However, technology-based solutions should be considered to supplement or augment these methods to help ensure that older adults remain connected to their friends, family, and community.

Psychologists play important roles in determining the success of these efforts. These roles include understanding the needs of older adults, how technology can meet those needs, barriers and facilitators of technology use and adoption, and how technologies should be designed so that individuals of all ages can reap their benefits.

 

References:

1Cacioppo, J. T., & Cacioppo, S. (2014). Social relationships and health: The toxic effects of perceived social isolation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass8(2), 58-72.

2Administration for Community Living. (2018). 2017 Profile of Older Americans. Retrieved from https://www.acl.gov/sites/default/files/Aging%20and%20Disability%20in%20America/2017OlderAmericansProfile.pdf

3He, W., Goodkind, D., & Kowal, P. (2016). An Aging World: 2015. International Population Reports. Author: U.S. Census. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p95-16-1.pdf

4Pew Research Center. (2018) Social media fact sheet. Retrieved from: http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/social-media/

5Czaja, S. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Rogers, W. A., & Sharit, J. (2017). Improving social support for older adults through technology: findings from the PRISM randomized controlled trial. The Gerontologist58(3), 467-477.

6Cotten, S. R., Anderson, W. A., & McCullough, B. M. (2013). Impact of internet use on loneliness and contact with others among older adults: cross-sectional analysis. Journal of Medical Internet Research15(2).

7Rogers, W. A., & Mitzner, T. L. (2017). Envisioning the future for older adults: Autonomy, health, well-being, and social connectedness with technology support. Futures87, 133-139.

 

Biography:

Walter R. Boot, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at Florida State University and Chair-Elect of APA’s Committee on Aging. He received his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Visual Cognition and Human Performance. Walter is one of six principal investigators of the multi-disciplinary Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement (CREATE), a long-standing National Institute on Aging funded center dedicated to ensuring that the benefits of technology can be realized by older adults. His research interests include how humans perform and learn to master complex tasks (especially tasks with safety-critical consequences), how age influences perceptual and cognitive abilities vital to the performance of these tasks, and how technological interventions can improve the wellbeing and cognitive functioning of older adults.

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