Technology offers solution to loneliness among elderly

In tens of thousands of households across Scotland the day begins early with a key turning in the lock.

‘It’s only me,’ cries a professionally cheery voice. Footsteps clatter to the kitchen to put the kettle on, a head appears round the bedroom door and a uniformed carer enters with a snap of plastic gloves. It’s time to get up.

What follows is a whirlwind of washing and dressing and with one eye on the clock the helper is away again leaving their charge with a cup of tea, a slice of toast, a long day ahead and, probably, the television for company.

Our society cares assiduously for the bodies of the old. Twice or three times a day that army of carers does its rounds. In residential homes and nursing homes others wipe and serve and clear away. It’s rather marvellous when you think about it. But it’s a system that owes much to efficiency and physical well-being – and little to humanity. The flesh is attended to but social and emotional needs are ignored.

A busy carer will have many clients to attend to. To linger for a chat with one is to neglect the next. So he or she switches on the television and departs.

And for all its entertainment value, television can’t converse.

Across the UK, more than half of people over the age of 75 live alone and five million of them say television is their main companion. A quarter don’t even know their nearest neighbour.

We can scarcely wonder that one fifth of the elderly are depressed. Most of us know the viciousness of loneliness and I suspect we all dread it for where loneliness enters depression is seldom far behind. As we get older it must be harder still to bear since there is less chance of the pattern of our life changing.

But for all society knows its horror and acknowledges an epidemic of it in the elderly, we do little to alleviate loneliness. If it was a virus we’d stock-pile vaccine.

It’s true that we dole out anti-depressants but how do we expect any pill to counteract the basic fact that too many of the retired and old have a sub-standard quality of life. Being cleaned and fed regularly is what we also offer prisoners in solitary confinement. It remains one of the greatest punishments we can inflict. And yet we observe it daily in our supposedly venerated old and shrug helplessly.

Now it seems there is hope in an unexpected form. The answer it seems is to give granny an iPad – grandpa too. And, if possible, with a bit of instruction thrown in.

An American study involving more than 3000 retired adults has discovered that internet use reduces their probability of depression by one third. The findings, published by Michigan State University in the Journal of Gerontology, are an important discovery in America where five to ten million people suffer from late-life depression.

It is significant here also. Scotland’s population is top heavy. We already have one million citizens over the age of 65. By 2031 that number is predicted to expand to almost 1,700,000. By no means all will be infirm but the numbers over 85 are also predicted to rise by 144% in that time. The current annual cost of £4.5 billion could reach £7.5bn. Imagine the financial saving if social networking by the lonely and old became commonplace here. Imagine the emotional boost if the incidence of depression decreased by 30%.

We know that social isolation has the same detrimental effect on health as 15 cigarettes a day. It is more harmful than obesity and a life without exercise. Feeling cut off and unloved increases the risk of high blood pressure and speeds the onset of disability.

On any given day up to five people visiting their GP do so because they are lonely. The isolated enter residential care earlier and appear more often in accident and emergency. Being alone and miserable speeds cognitive decline and increases the likelihood of self-harm.

I am aware of referring to the elderly as though they are a breed apart. We talk about the old, about their isolation and their epidemic of loneliness as if they are a different species – as if age inures them to such hardship. It doesn’t of course. They are us – or just like us. One day, if we don’t die first, we will be them. And we’ll still feel 18 inside, as they do now.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation rightly recommends that any initiative to improve quality of life pays particular attention to individual needs. They emphasise the importance of involving participants in choosing activities. There are organisations that do excellent work through befriending services.

Lots of older people take the initiative to join clubs, go on outings and make certain they retain contact with the wider world.

But it is also the case that when loneliness and depression strike, victims often feel less able to take the initiative about making contact. They feel unwanted and undesirable. They need coaxing and encouraging and reassurance.

The positive thing about social networking on the internet is that it takes the fear out of getting in touch. There is no need for awkwardness since the first approach can be by email or a tweet.

Old friends who are now far flung can be traced. Scattered family can easily maintain daily or weekly contact. Skype can reach across the world in seconds.

As importantly, enthusiasms can be maintained and developed. Whether it is pedigree dogs that hold the interest or astrophysics or stitch-work, people of like mind can be contacted and ideas shared without the need to get to a library or drive hundreds of miles.

On-line communities are socially sustaining and often lead to real life friendship.

Private nosiness can be indulged. I had fun recently when a friend bought a house once owned by my aunt. I was able to go on-line, take a tour of its almost forgotten rooms and have a detailed email conversation with her about the changes she plans.

In fact the internet could have been designed precisely for the old and infirm. It doesn’t matter if they get as addicted as the rest of us seem to. And if they take to poker or trawl porn sites, what harm?

By the time my generation reaches the long-stay departure lounge, ownership of a tablet will be common. Between now and then it needs to be a gift. And I would argue that, even in times of restraint, it should be an item supplied by or subsidised by the state to those who can’t afford one. Like travel or cinema tickets, it should be concessionary.

If, as the American study suggests, it boosts well-being, spares many from depression and cuts down on the cost of social care, it’s a win-win – truly a silver lining.