An issue that we see all too often with older adults, and which was exacerbated throughout the pandemic lockdowns, is that they can be lonely and isolated. With spouses who pass away, and children and grandchildren having their own lives, our elders may end up spending a great deal of time on their own. They may feel that they don’t want to bother their family members by calling, or asking them to visit.
According to this New Yorker article from earlier this year, loneliness and isolation can have a serious impact on an elderly person. Without anyone to call, or anyone to check on them, an older adult could remain on the ground for a long time after a fall, or be living in unsafe or unhygienic conditions. From a medical perspective, loneliness is thought to result in a heightened inflammatory response, which can increase the risk of a number of conditions including dementia, depression, high blood pressure, and stroke. All this to say that loneliness is a serious problem. And it has the potential to impact many people; the article notes that nearly thirty per cent of Americans over 65 years of age live by themselves, and that forty-three per cent of Americans over 60 years of age identify as lonely.
An interesting project that has popped up in recent years involves distributing robot pets to elderly people. A study published in 2020 found that elderly users who interacted with the robotic pets for sixty days reported greater optimism and sense of purpose, and were sometimes less lonely.
Anecdotal comments from some older adults who were given a robot pet indicate that even though they know the pet isn’t real, at times it can feel real. One owner noted that he had put out water for his cat, even though he knew she wouldn’t drink it, but that he likes to “kid around with her” about this. Frequently, owners of the pets like and interact with their pet so much that the batteries run out.
Some critics are concerned that it may be indecent for us to offer robotic company as an alternative to human company. However, the difficulty seems to be that there is a lack of human company.
Although this approach may not be for everyone, that it has had some success with a number of users so far is, in my view, a positive thing. If younger generations can rely on technological innovations to improve our everyday lives, the same should apply to older adults. The robotic pets are not intended to replace human companionship, but if it helps alleviate loneliness, it seems to me to be worth trying.
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Just as an economic recession has serious ramifications for our society, so too does a social recession. A social recession can be described as a phenomenon whereby social bonds and human connection unravel the longer we are without interaction. Similar to an economic downturn, a social recession can have significant physical and psychological effects on people. Of particular concern to many is the effect that such a recession will have on the elderly, an already vulnerable population.
Restrictions in long-term care homes resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic have only magnified a deeper rooted pandemic of loneliness that was already in existence. The virus also shed light on an already strained and crumbling system. CBC Marketplace found that 538 of the 632 long-term care homes in Ontario were repeat offenders of abuse, inadequate infection control, inadequate hydration, unsafe medication storage, and poor skin and wound care. These homes were in direct violation of the Long-Term Care Homes Act and Regulations.
The importance of human connection cannot be underestimated. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, found that people with higher levels of social connection experience less inflammation (which is attributed to many chronic diseases) than those who are more isolated. Toronto long-term care resident, Devora Greenspon, although not infected with Covid-19, described her loneliness as “so deep it feels like a disease.”
Residents in Ontario’s long-term care homes have pleaded with the government to address the mass devastation caused by social isolation. It is crucial that elders and long-term care residents are protected from the spread of Covid-19. However, it is equally as important to halt the plague of loneliness from spreading any further. There must be a greater focus on the devastating effects of isolation on elders’ mental health as a healthy mind can often be the greatest weapon against disease. The inevitability of a social recession should not be overlooked.
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Suzana Popovic-Montag and Tori Joseph