How Skype and email could help seniors avoid loneliness – and an early death

Researchers say loneliness is not only emotionally taxing but can affect your life expectancy. This is of particular concern to seniors, but many have found that modern communications technology provides a means of keeping loneliness at bay.

University of Toronto lab looking at ways of combating isolation

Researchers say that communications technology such as Skype can help seniors stave off loneliness. (Shutterstock)

Researchers say that loneliness is not only emotionally taxing but can affect your life expectancy.

This is of particular concern to seniors, but many have found that modern communications technology provides a means of keeping loneliness at bay.

Just ask 94-year-old Bertha Kronenberg, who lives in Revera’s Forest Hill retirement home in Toronto.

Kronenberg grew up in an orphanage in Johannesburg, and her early life was devoid of love and human contact – staff in the orphanage called children by numbers rather than their names.

Now just six years shy of 100, Kronenberg's life is full of love and meaningful connections, even though her family lives in South Africa.

That's because more than a decade ago, she taught herself to use her computer to reach out and stay in touch. When she's skyping with her sons and grandchildren, she says she feels they're in the room with her. She says she has made and maintains deep friendships online.

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These connections might even be helping to keep her alive, because loneliness can be lethal.

“Seniors that experience social isolation and loneliness are more likely to suffer from stress, depression, cognitive and functional decline, morbidity and death,” warns Barbara Barbosa Neves, a research associate at the Technologies for Aging Gracefully lab (TAGlab) at the University of Toronto.

Neves stresses that sending an email or skyping with an aging relative is not the same as visiting with them in person, but she says a growing body of research suggests that digital connections play a crucial role in maintaining and improving seniors' quality of life.

Preventing social isolation

The largest study on the impact of loneliness, published in 2012 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, shows that people who are socially isolated are twice as likely to die prematurely.

It found that lonely seniors were nearly 50 per cent more likely to die earlier than seniors who felt meaningfully connected with others, even after results were adjusted for factors such as depression, socioeconomic status and existing health conditions.

To put that in context, that means loneliness is nearly twice as dangerous as obesity, with a mortality rate comparable to smoking.

Ron Baecker is dedicated to changing that, and as the founder and director of the TAGlab, he’s trying to do something about it.

His lab has developed technology called InTouch, which is designed to combat social isolation and loneliness. It uses "asynchronous messaging" – that is, platforms that don't require both parties to communicate at the same time, such as email – multimedia and whatever medium the individual recipient prefers.

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.

The technology is designed to be as accessible as possible, leaving no excuse not to keep in contact with family members, regardless of their chosen technology platform or available time.

 “We think that asynchronous multimedia messaging has a great role to play... "Face to face communications and internet communications go hand in hand. One does not take away from the other," says Baecker.

"We’re also looking to enable this technology to encourage families to work together, not just from the point of view of communication, but engaging productively around issues of quality of life and health that seniors encounter regularly.”

Jesse Hirsh is the host of Next Age. It airs at 7 a.m. (7:30 NT) on Radio One on Dec. 26 and again at 4 p.m. (4:30 NT) on Jan. 1.


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