Loneliness is having a devastating impact on our older population. Every day, we hear stories of older people who feel marginalised and useless, believe they are a burden on society, and who have no one to turn to for the simple companionship so many of us take for granted. Last year, we at Friends of the Elderly published The Future of Loneliness report to take a deeper look into the rising issue of loneliness and what we can do as a society to change its course.
Unsurprisingly, the report found that technology has a huge potential to impact loneliness. Having access to, and the skills to use, the Internet can not only connect older people with friends and family living far away, but could help reestablish old friendships and offer opportunities to form new ones.
More than half of older people are already accessing the Internet and the good news is that usage is set to rise to over 70 per cent in 2020 and up to 90 per cent by 2030, as costs fall and increasingly user-friendly devices and software are developed. Many older users already enjoy online social networking and participation will continue to grow rapidly. However, even by 2030, large numbers of older people will still not be using the Internet at all and as more and more services (and conversations, family photos etc) become available online only, the growing dominance of the Internet will see digital exclusion becoming an increasingly severe problem.
So what can we do to help make sure no one is disadvantaged through lack of access to the online world? Suggestions from our report include:
• Service providers seeking to use the potential of online social networking to combat loneliness must 'reality check' the speed with which the older population will adopt the Internet and online social networking. Even by 2030, a large minority will not be taking part at all. These are, we strongly suspect, likely to be those most at risk of isolation.
• Focus on pre-emptive adaptation - getting people used to new technology as early as possible in life is important. Introducing the Internet to 60 somethings today will have greater impact on their future usage levels.
• Recognise the vital importance of gaining a basic familiarity with mass consumer technologies (especially the smartphone), which may become platforms for contact and care applications in the future.
"Technology is going a bit too fast for me! My degree in computing was about 30 years ago. Things have changed." - Anne, 84.
But the onus isn't only with providers - individuals and other organisations can make a difference too. Our Be a Friend campaign encourages people to connect with the older people in their lives to help end loneliness - offering to share technological know-how with older relatives, friends and neighbours is a great way to get started.
Here are some ideas how you can help the older people in your life get connected. Show them how to:
• Search local news and events
• Connect with friends and family on Facebook
• Make a Skype call to someone who lives far away
• Place a grocery shopping order
• Find a better deal on their gas and electric or insurance
• Access Google Earth and walk them back down the streets of their old home towns
Of course, the Internet is only one piece in the jigsaw - it can not and should not replace meaningful relationships, everyday human interaction and real world experiences. But it can enhance them and make life a little easier for anyone who finds it hard to get out and about. We have a lot to do if we are to change the future of loneliness, but if we all do something small the collective impact will mean a more connected future for all of us.
For more tips on how to Be a Friend visit www.beafriendtoday.org.uk.