Tuesday 15 October 2019

Technology could be the key to solving the loneliness problem facing our elderly

While loneliness is not exclusive to the elderly, it is the older generation who suffer the most acutely from it.
While loneliness is not exclusive to the elderly, it is the older generation who suffer the most acutely from it.
Sinead Moriarty

Sinead Moriarty

Loneliness is the scourge of modern society. Whereas we all used to know our neighbours it's no longer a given.

Nobody even looks up anymore, everyone has their face buried in their phones. What happened to the easy chats you'd start up with people waiting at a bus stop or in line at the bank?

When was the last time a stranger looked you in the eye and said hello to you on a bus? If they did, you'd most likely think they were a nutter.

While loneliness is not exclusive to the elderly, it is the older generation who suffer the most acutely from it.

Research compiled by Brian Harvey and Kathy Walsh for the Ageing Research and Development Division at the Institute of Public Health in Ireland (IPH) suggests that approximately 10pc of older people are troubled by chronic or persistent loneliness.

It's not just mental health that loneliness affects. Loneliness has been proven to be detrimental to physical health too. For those between the ages of 65 and 84 loneliness takes the lives of as many people as cancer.

A review of over 140 studies into social isolation found that the influence loneliness has on early mortality is comparable to risk factors like smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People who feel lonely also have a 64pc greater risk of developing dementia in old age than those who do not feel lonely.

Loneliness also increases the risk of high blood pressure and has been linked to hospital readmission, and early admission to long-term care.

Hugh O'Connor, CEO of Age Friendly Ireland, warned "More than one-in-three community dwelling people over 65 report being lonely. Loneliness has a very real impact on physical wellbeing, and has been shown to increase rates of depression, hypertension and even death."

What can we do about it? Everyone knows that the fitter, more active and engaged you are, the better is it for your overall health. So how do we draw lonely people out of their homes and back into the community?

A new app is changing things dramatically in the UK. The world of online communication makes many older people feel even more alienated but this new app is very easy to use and is proving to be a positive force in community living.

The app, named, Streetlife, is the UK's largest and fastest growing social network. It currently connects over 1.2 million people across the country. It's simple to use and the aim is to connect people living in the same community.

Whether you want to get rid of an old couch or need someone to fix your TV or find someone who is interested in stamp collecting, Streetlife can help you do it.

Streetlife and other apps like it are similar to the old parish newspaper or local noticeboard. The reason for the remarkable growth and success of Streetlife in the UK is that people crave connection but are too shy to knock on a neighbour's door.

But with Streetlife, you may well find yourself going to number 35 to collect a chair they posted for sale and end up having a cup of tea and making a connection. That person may know someone who loves stamp collecting and they in turn might sing in the local choir and ask you to join.

Even one simple connection can open up a whole world of change for a lonely person.

People are generally kind hearted and willing to help. The problem is, we are all so tied up being busy that we don't stop to think of our elderly neighbours and check in on them.

Apps like Streetlife will make it easier for lonely people to connect with like-minded people and to volunteer or join groups that they would otherwise never hear about.

The benefits are both physical and mental. The World Health Organisation has found that participation in leisure, social, cultural and spiritual activities in the community helps older people maintain self-esteem and create or develop supportive and caring relationships.

Over the next 30 years, the number of people in Ireland over the age of 65 will double and the number over 80 will quadruple. This population ageing poses huge challenges for us to create environments which will allow us lead healthy, active and engaged lives.

We need to act now to stop the epidemic of loneliness destroying lives. Let's hope some tech savvy person with a social conscience is working on a community-spirited app for Ireland right now.

Irish Independent

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