I wanted to highlight how technology can help those of us separated from those we love, especially those older or living alone.
But honestly, technology seems at least in part to blame. There’s no substitute for being together, having a chat, and spending time.
So let’s say we take all the time we can together. It’s not enough.
For those who lead busy lives and want to be connected more closely across families, you're not alone. Most likely you are parenting yourself, earning a living, trying to be a partner that's present, and keeping on top your own fitness, wellbeing and life admin. Chances are, you’re doing everything you can in person to be together, but in the rock-paper-scissors equivalent of intent-distance-time, you're caught short.
Technology may seem like the cheat's way out - impersonal, probably would be met with resistance, and unlikely to bring you more time together.
The good news is, we do have a lot of clever choices we've never had before, to combine people and technology to reduce loneliness and bring us closer.
Starting with the way we think about it, says Peta Slocombe, Psychologist, and Mental Health expert.
To begin with, loneliness isn’t caused by technology. The mental health ‘crisis’ or ‘epidemic’ is because we are tribal people. We need to have a purpose. We need to share stories. We need to see each other and know someone has our back and that we play a part in having theirs.
In reality, people of all ages are just as lonely as each other. Older people grew up watering the lawn sharing stories with the neighbors, and being known by name across generations at their corner store. They shared a room with their siblings and sat as a family across generations at Sunday lunch.
They miss that because life has changed. We can help them transition that connection, to both more in-person time spent, and via using technology. There are benefits to all of us spending this time together when we can’t be there in person. It opens the possibilities for grandparents and all family members to form more daily connections that can benefit everyone. Young people could do with the connection to reduce loneliness too.
Technology didn't cause loneliness, and it and it won’t erase it. Even though we want to be together in person as much as we can - it’s just not always possible.
Here are 9 ideas to address loneliness by combining people and technology - followed by 5 Ways to Introduce the Conversation and Get Better Outcomes with your family. See also further reading.
9 Ideas for People and Technology to Help with Loneliness
1. Drop-in for a video chat (across all the generations)
It’s 6 pm. The home hub rings and granddaughter Jessica appears larger than life on the kitchen bench screen. “ Hi, Gran. Camp was AMAZING!“ Grown kids or grandkids can bring delight and news of the day. Letting your family member know they are on your mind and seeing expressions close up. Share a story, ask for advice, or arrange the next time you’ll see each other.
Home hubs such as Amazon Echo Show or Google Nest Hub Max mean you can drop in without your family member or friend needing to do anything. Placed in a common area, calls can happen both ways, video or voice or multiple-party video, just with your voice.
Features like automatic face tracking allow the screen to follow, and when you’re not on a call, letting loved ones know if there’s an absence of movement for a period of time might trigger you to take an action.
We've chosen these devices after two years of testing both. Both the Google Nest Home Hub and Alexa Echo Show 8 are reliable and so far have never crashed, rebooted or needed manual updating. They are from reputable brands, with significant resources into further development, videos and support. They are both multi-function to offer related value such as reminders, alarms, information, entertainment and smart home control. As importantly they work with thousands of 3rd party products and apps (or skills) should you wish to connect to them beyond the drop-in and calling capabilities. Examples include services like Netflix, cameras, lights, doorlocks, and from fitness services, to recipes, to banking and uber apps to Parkinson's association.
Tip, share the details with family and friends and make sure everyone makes the effort to call in as part of their new routine. Be fully present when talking. Connection is more than the internet status. Cameras can be turned off for privacy when needed, and think about placing them in high traffic areas rather than bedrooms and bathrooms.
2. Arrange for People to Visit Safely
Lunchtime Wednesday. A carer or home help rings the doorbell, arriving to check on your health, clean, or provide companionship. The family will have your back, as they can agree on it with you, book someone, and then check on the security camera by the front door or gate.
Remotely, you talk to them. “It’s Jane, I’m here to do the cleaning”. “Sure Jane, come on in, I’ll open the door for you.”. Mum’s looking forward to seeing you. Peace of mind for you both, building trust that you both know who’s there when they came and left, and that the door was securely closed.
Video doorbells such as Ring, or our favorite, an Arlo camera, and an August Smart lock. In many cases, locks and cameras can be wireless, fitted in minutes, and offer other benefits such as helping with lost keys, doors left unlocked at night, or if you ask a neighbor to drop in to check in when there’s no answer on the phone or doorbell. “Whoo-hoo.. Marlene are you there?”
3. Say Goodnight as you Fall Asleep with Voice-activated Calling
10 pm. Any day. Lying in bed at night, your dad has just settled in under the covers. He can’t sleep. It’s been like that since he was widowed. Feel a little less lonely by talking to someone you love. “Hey Google, Call David”. “Hey, Alexa. Send a message to Lisa and say I love you, from dad.”
Google Nest Mini and Alexa Echo Dot devices might be best without a screen, by the bed. Call with your voice if you need help during the night, without the need to reach for a personal alarm. Having someone to talk to, and knowing family aren’t too far away, helps our sense of connectedness across generations. Set up shortcuts to say good morning, hear the time, weather, and any reminders for tomorrow, or fall asleep to your favorite music. Note that this should not be considered a lifesaving device.
4. Keep Exploring, Feeling Secure that Family can Help when you Need
“I like to go down the street in the mornings. I also love to do a bit of gardening in the backyard.” It feels like the family is close because I carry this tiny button and if I need them, I just press the button. In the worst-case scenario it can detect a fall, we can talk, or it will send my location if I ask, or they are worried.
The best of both worlds is that I do what I want, with a backup. They feel so close. It makes me feel like.. me.. to keep part of my community and do what I love.
Jiobit (USA), and Suresafe (eg. UK, Australia) personal alarms are both great options. Products generally offer a range of features, including calling, talking, sending location, and fall detection. As these devices require a sim connection with a telecommunications provider in your country, check what best suits your area. Another two good options, may be an Apple Airtag, or a mobile app, Life360.
Apple Airtags have been getting some good results if your family member lives in a built up area (as other devices need to be nearby to securely transmit the location), with the added value of being tagged to keys, a belt clip or wallet. This can be helpful if it's what they will 'grab' to leave home with, instead of remembering. personal alarm, as well as if keys etc become lost.
Life360 is an app on an Apple or Android device, with it's strength being a highly accurate location, sharing across families to find each other, and the ability to set geotag zones or favourite places, and be alerted when one of you leave or arrive eg home, work, the store or the regular walking block or route.
5. Learning and Connected with Friends, Family, and Interests
2 pm. I sit down after lunch and check on my little window to the wider world. It’s my way of being connected. I check on the news, follow the activities of my friends and family, and read community updates. Over the last 12 months, I’ve got a pen pal, polished up my Spanish, and read a new book every few weeks. “It’s incredible when you think about it.”
Tablets like the Lumin, or Grandpad, Google Nest Hub Max, or Apple iPad with cases and accessibility turned on (for example for hearing, sight, and voice control) - are highly stable, and can be delightful experiences. They are full of features and settings to make things easier. You can join specialist and relevant communities, watch videos and learn almost anything, listen to audiobooks, ask the voice assistant any questions, or play the music that takes you back. Music has well-known benefits for calm and comfort.
6. Sharing memories and photos
"It makes me feel good, to see photos of my family circle by in the digital frame. Sometimes I'll see a photo and call the kids. "How naughty was that puppy on the couch?" or "What was the netball score?".
Although the concept isn't new, it might be time to take a new look at the features of digital photo frames, as they've come a long way. Across generations and geographies, families can more easily share photos and videos with a simple few clicks, and add captions. Two good ones to take a look at are the Connected Frame and the Nix which has slightly more options like the ability for families to create playlists, and AI to adjust the person closest to the center of the frame.
Another way to reduce loneliness is to remind loved ones they are not alone and share photos. For those who find moving pictures confusing, use your phone or computer to create physical photos from a service like Mixtiles, and send a beautifully designed gift box with frames to simply stick up on the wall.
In the case of Mixtiles, they can be moved in a few minutes to a bedroom if someone is confined to bed, a hallway to help family or their visiting carers know how loved they are, or moved to a hospital room or care facility (and back again) to bring warmth and familiarity to an otherwise unfamiliar place.
If you have a Google Nest Max or Alexa Echo screen device, you can also easily use it as a digital frame.
7. Keep Routines and Engage with Your Community
“My driver's license was given up a few years ago. I wasn’t using the car much and frankly, I didn’t want to be responsible for anything happening.”
Whether you’re well or getting frail, getting out and about in the community can be invigorating and rewarding. Not to mention, the more we move, the stronger and fitter we tend to be to reduce falls. See new things, and have new conversations about your errands, encounters, and activities.
A range of nicely designed options powered by new technologies can help with well-being by keeping up social interactions and independence, including electric bikes and trikes, walking aids, and lightweight scooters or wheelchairs. Some have room for a passenger and may benefit couples where one is less mobile, preventing both from otherwise going out.
8. Be Collected to Meet Friends or Watch the Game
"Every Saturday, my grandkids play football at 8 am. Tuesday’s, well that’s always been the bridge club game. The local library - I used to love sitting down and reading the newspapers there.
When I stopped driving, I thought I’d have to give that up. Everyone has schedules to juggle which makes it a bit hard. My kids got together and sorted everything. There’s a ride-sharing service that picks me up each week and makes sure I don’t miss out on what I love. There’s always someone to meet me at the other end. Saturday's I go back to my son’s place for lunch, and by then they have plenty of time to drop me home. Sometimes my daughter calls on the way home from work and says she misses me, come for dinner?
Ride-sharing services or a taxi can be called, tracked and the successful arrival details shared. They can be booked by voice “Hey Google, call me an Uber”. If you’re worried about needing help or preventing unintended wandering, combine the service with a tag, phone, or personal alarm to go along with them.
Other gig economy services can assist in finding services like sitters, dog walkers, cleaners, carers, and tutors; finding work, or getting jobs done. Generally, these enable local providers, transparent reviews, and managing disputes. Also consult with a friend or family to agree on what's right for you, together.
9. Simplified phones to hear and see
“I have friends, but I can’t hear properly on the phone, and I sometimes get the number wrong, somehow. If I’m honest when my friends and the kids call I often don’t hear it ring or hear what they're saying. It frustrates us all.”
Hearing loss is common in older adults and typically impairs communication and social interactions, which in turn can have a detrimental impact on health, depression, loneliness, and isolation.
Technology has come a long way to helping keep up connections, with phones such as photo dialing, louder rings, hearing aid compatible, and sos buttons. These can be simplified home phones with visual dialling or large buttons or mobile devices. Features include flashing lights, pictures, sounds, sos buttons, mobile or home.
5 Ways to Introduce the Conversation and Get Better Outcomes
Peta Slocombe, as a Psychologist, Counsellor, and specialist in Mental Health including founding programs like Australia’s Biggest Mental Health Check-in, and co-Founding the UK-based global mental health initiative “One Million Lives”, has studied the effects of technology across ages, including during COVID.
“When discussing with your parents or with loved ones, possibilities for technology, here are a few thoughts about what might give it its best chance to make a valuable way forward”.
Be human and be there in person as much as you can. Period. And when you can’t, do all that you can to bridge the gap until you can. Not because it is better for them, but because it is better for all of us.
Make a suggestion to introduce technology with love and not based on guilt or fear. Raising the suggestion of technology can feel uncomfortable. Why? Because it feels like we are stepping out of the picture. Guilt is one of the weakest motivators. Love is one of the strongest.
Find out what motivates you both. A lot of people are frustrated when they raise the idea of a technology device, only to be met with resistance. Independence, keeping up with the news of grandchildren, or sharing your life stories.
Give it purpose. If you’ve lived a life of resilience, independence, and giving and now you are being seen as someone who is the source of worry to others, you’ll both feel sad about the conversation. Mum, “I grew up hearing your stories and having granddad listening to mine. I want your granddaughter to have that opportunity with you.”
Think about language. Sharing news vs checking in. Being there if you want me, vs control. We and us vs you. Doing what you love or are good at vs keeping busy.
Finally, technology isn’t the panacea or the enemy. It was designed by humans for humans. You can have a camera that shares a beautiful moment or one that feels like a one-dimensional big brother. You can be there in person and still not hear or see people really.
Stop focusing on tech or causing loneliness and use it to harness the things that are important to you in life.
We should consider all the options we can.
About the Authors
Peta Slocombe and Kate Eriksson have a deep connection on this subject matter, with both personal and professional expertise and qualifications. They are twin sisters.
Peta Slocombe has a Master of Psychology and is a practicing psychologist, mental health advocate, and Founder, with experiences across Australia, the US, and the UK.
Kate Eriksson Kate Eriksson has worked as a technologist and entrepreneur building growth initiatives for some of the world’s most influential companies. She’s lived in Australia, Stockholm, and Silicon Valley, and in 2019 founded health tech startup, hello Ed with a passion to help 1 in 4 people in the world with health or age-related conditions like Dementia, Autism Spectrum, Parkinson’s through to heart, sleep, or loneliness and isolation.