A report entitled Social Isolation in Older Adults: An evolutionary concept analysis describes social isolation as “a state in which the individual lacks a sense of belonging socially, lacks engagement with others, has a minimal number of social contacts and they are deficient in fulfilling and quality relationships.”
Social isolation and loneliness are often used as interchangeable terms, however, social isolation is an objective term and loneliness is a subjective term based on an individual’s perception of their relationships and social connectedness.
The prevalence of social isolation among older adults is difficult to quantify. A Canadian Government Report on Social Isolation of Seniors offers these statistics:
“Although knowledge and data about social isolation of seniors in Canada are limited, existing findings demonstrate that many older Canadians are socially isolated or at risk of becoming so. In a Statistics Canada 2012 Health Report, almost one in four adults over the age of 65 (24%) reported that they would have liked to have participated in more social activities in the past year. Statistics Canada’s 2008/09 Canadian Community Health Survey found that 19% of individuals aged 65 or over felt a lack of companionship, left out, or isolated from others.”
Older adults may experience social isolation due to death of a spouse/friend, illness, disability, lack of transportation, depression, low self-esteem, and/or poverty (among other contributing factors). Often, relatives of older adults live far away and may be unable to provide the supports necessary to ensure that their loved ones remain socially engaged.
Fortunately, technology may be able to provide some solutions to these challenges. Communication technologies such as Skype, Twitter, Facebook, and email have the capacity to allow individuals to remain socially connected with family and friends, maintaining their existing social circles in spite of physical barriers. Technology companies such as Stitch have created networks specifically for older adults looking for companionship, supporting the growth of personal networks based on specific needs and interests.
The University of Toronto’s Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab (Taglab) is developing unique technologies to deal specifically with social isolation. Intouch “allows family members to send video messages to each other and have them appear on televisions, computers or tablets, so that regardless of availability, loved ones can stay in touch” according to a CBC news article entitled ‘How Skype and email could help seniors avoid loneliness – and an early death’.
Technology can also be used indirectly to help older adults who may be at risk for social isolation. A United Kingdom charity called Friends of the Elderly created a campaign “calling on everyone to be a friend” to an older adult in their community. Using social media tools like Twitter, the charity encourages and suggests ways for individuals to connect with older adults on a daily basis. Their report entitled The Future of Loneliness “looks at the landscape for loneliness amongst older people, in the next 5, 10 and 15 years”.
Like any tool, communication technology should be used properly in order for it to be most effective. It therefore lies in the hands of the user to create and grow their own positive, personalized social network according to their own needs, interests, and abilities. Although technology is not a panacea for social isolation in all cases, (there may be barriers to this solution such as accessibility and cost) it may be a lifeline for some isolated older adults.
For more information on the issue of social isolation, a recent television program entitled All the Lonely People provides a compelling overview on the positive and negative uses of technology to help overcome isolation.
Looking for a way to connect with older adults in your community? Check out #beafriend on Twitter.