By Phil Marshman, founder and CEO of Sentai
Social isolation and loneliness are big international issues. Although loneliness can affect people of all ages, it is particularly prevalent amongst older people who are most likely to be physically challenged and less able to leave their homes or socialise freely. In the UK, it is estimated that nearly a third of people aged 65 and over live alone, with 1.4 million of those people describing themselves as often, or always, feeling lonely – and that’s not even taking into account the impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have had over the last year. Numerous national lockdowns and ongoing social distancing measures have kept those who live by themselves isolated from the outside world, naturally increasing the already distressing number of people suffering with some form of loneliness.
Unfortunately, loneliness and social isolation is having a knock-on effect on the physical and mental health of many, which in turn puts additional pressure on already overstretched health services. According to research compiled by the Campaign to End Loneliness, loneliness puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline and disability – and even increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%.
With an additional 600,000 elderly UK residents expected to suffer from loneliness by 2025, taking the total number to over 2 million people, and growing concerns that loneliness could be the next biggest public health crisis, exploring ways to address loneliness and social isolation is a timely issue.
Like most problems in today’s world, we often turn to technology to find a solution. Caring for the elderly and vulnerable is no different and thankfully we’re already starting to see a proliferation of assistive technologies that can provide companionship whilst keeping older people connected with loved ones and allowing them to live independently in their own homes for longer. With even greater innovations in this area on the horizon, it’s crucial that we continue to challenge common misconceptions around older people’s willingness to embrace technology, especially as it seems they are more than happy to engage with new technologies provided they are accessible, easy to use and beneficial to their wellbeing.
Solutions that support the wellbeing of family caregivers are also becoming more available, with options arriving to market that allow caregivers to keep an eye on their loved ones when they can’t be physically with them. Often cited as a stressor amongst informal caregivers, these technologies can dramatically reduce any feelings of worry and guilt experienced by caregivers when separated from their loved one – the ‘caregivers’ burden’. Furthermore, they can be invaluable in helping caregivers to manage multiple competing priorities, reducing the risk of negative health outcomes and intervening to alleviate some of the stress associated with the caregiving experience.
But how do these technologies work to support someone who lives alone, whilst also learning from the behaviours of users to interact in a more personal and meaningful way? This is largely down to the recent introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Voice Technology, which has allowed developers to create agile products that build relationships with the user.
Unlike standard hands-free and voice-controlled smart devices that only speak when they’re spoken to, new technologies exist that can start and maintain conversations, and which are much more valuable when placed in the home of someone who lives alone and may be suffering with dementia or another type of memory loss illness. By using a complex algorithm that can learn from its contextual experiences with the user, these devices can independently prompt and offer gentle reminders around preparing meals, taking medication or even having video calls with the grandchildren. Pioneering AI and Augmented Voice Technology can go even further in offering and maintaining two-way conversations that, as a result, can significantly reduce loneliness among the older population and even eliminate it in some cases. With 49 percent of elderly people in the UK stating that the TV or their pets offer them their main source of company, the value that such technology can add to an elder’s life cannot be denied. Whether it’s talking to someone who lives alone about their day ahead, suggesting they should get some fresh air and exercise with a walk at 2pm, giving them a new recipe to try out, or reminding them their favourite TV programme starts at 5pm, the possibilities are endless and increase the fostering of companionship and even friendship.
It may sound unrealistic and too far into the future for a person and a device to interact in this way, but it’s already happening now, and will soon be commonplace in the homes of people across the UK.
While machine learning isn’t revolutionary, using it to reduce loneliness and support caregivers who can’t always be there for their loved ones is. And where does the caregiver fit into this new relationship between their family member and the ever-evolving smart device? Well, products are now available that come equipped with sensors that can monitor the user’s movements, providing text updates on their mobility to relatives and carers and alerting them in emergencies. Caregivers can even stay connected via a smart app, with daily performance logs and push notifications enabling them to get peace of mind – anxiety and stress is alleviated with this best-in-class independent care.
Although still a fairly new and evolving field of development, technology built to combat loneliness and improve poor mental health will soon be integrated into more typical IOT in the household, allowing it to control other smart devices around the user’s home.
Technology too can go some way in assisting caregivers when used in residential settings, by acting as a personal in-room buddy to care home residents. Devices exist that can encourage good physical and mental health by prompting residents to engage in scheduled activities and to align with fellow residents. As well as stimulating residents, these innovations can help carers by enabling them to provide contactless care. They can now use technology to monitor residents’ movements and to receive alerts if there’s unusual activity or if anything seems untoward, allowing them to respond immediately. Often overstretched due to chronic staff shortages within the industry, these technologies allow carers to maintain a high standard of care by keeping a caring eye on residents at times when they might be otherwise unable to.
Overall, as more advancements are made in the field of AI in caregiving, we can expect to see more caregiving devices popping up in the homes of people who fall into the 1.4million that feel lonely, and ultimately, that can only be a good thing.
Phil Marshman is the founder and CEO of Sentai, a British technology start-up using innovative artificial intelligence to help caregivers independently support the elderly from the comfort and safety of their own home, via a machine-learning smart device. Being launched to help provide a solution to the UK’s ageing population crisis and rise in loneliness – accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic – Sentai monitors and supports the elderly to help bring peace of mind to relatives who can’t always be present.