Addressing an affliction of the aging population: Loneliness

By Shelley Gilberg

The astonishing rise in our average lifespan over the last century – from an average of 50 to 80 years and beyond – hides a looming risk factor which societies must learn to address: loneliness among older adults.

The benefits of living longer can rapidly turn to burdens after your spouse or siblings die, and your children, if you have them, disperse in search of opportunity to support their own families. In other words, loneliness in older adults has been described as ‘your world dying before you do.’

It is an emerging risk factor that has massive implications for personal, economic and societal well-being. A recent article published by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) references research from Brigham Young University that loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by 30 percent, making loneliness as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

By 2050, the United Nations expects that Japan and Germany will have 40 percent or more of their population over age 60. Canada will have nearly a third in the same age group. Implicit in this aging population is the potential for a lonelier one. Statistics Canada has reported that as many as 1.4 million elderly Canadians reported feeling lonely. Britain recently led the way globally by being the first to appoint a government Minister of Loneliness to address this growing public health crisis.

Solutions rely on core principles

This topic matters not only to individuals and families, but to medical professionals, corporations, advocacy groups and governments that are affected by its consequences. Fortunately, according to a study by IBM’s institute for Business Value, there are opportunities for us all to improve how older adults engage with the world.

According to experts on the aging, solutions to foster greater connection among older adults rely on core principles:

  • No one organization can solve this issue on its own. Solutions must engage multiple stakeholders including infrastructure providers, government agencies, healthcare and advocacy organizations.
  • Customized, relevant content and services are essential. To build and enhance social capital, solutions need to be tailored to the interests of the individual and adapted to their communities.
  • Personalization takes priority over simplification. Solutions should adapt to the wide levels of technical fluency within the aging community.
  • Scalability is paramount. Beyond pilots and programs, viable future solutions must offer both ease of customization and cost-effective scalability.


The promise of new technology

Already, forward-looking entities such as cities, agencies, hospital networks and others are using cognitive or cloud platform technologies with new application tools – natural language, visual recognition, data integration, AI – to deploy promising solutions.

Hamilton Seniors Isolation Impact Plan unites seven local organizations to help prevent and reduce social isolation for seniors living in the greater Hamilton community.  One service provided by the program is an interactive, one stop web-based resource and referral system to community support services.

Rendever, a virtual reality experience provider in Cambridge, Massachusetts, makes it possible for seniors, in the comfort of their own living spaces, to take part in solo or group virtual explorations of places they cannot physically visit. Facilities using the technology report a 40 percent increase in happiness levels.

The Silver Line is a U.K. organization that runs a national helpline tailored to social needs of the aging. A free and confidential helpline open 24/7, 365 days a year for those 60 and older, Silver Line has received over 1.3 million calls since it launched in 2013, about 10,000 a week. Two-thirds of these calls come overnight or on weekends when other services are unavailable.

Call and Check is a service developed by Jersey Post to provide a cost-efficient method of using the postal workers to help connect socially isolated and lonely older residents with the community.  Currently in the pilot phase, the service has around 50 postal workers covering Jersey’s 100,000 residents.

A new kind of village

Due to the limits of our current societal structures to support older adults, ideas are taking shape to engage new and existing industries, organizations and agencies around more holistic solutions. These range from intergenerational living – co-housing programs with shared living areas for older and younger generations to foster companionship, to post-retirement careers and education opportunities to autonomous transportation – self-driving vehicles could restore independence and re-open social engagement.

Old age isn’t going away; on the contrary, for the clear majority of us it’s only coming closer. Technology that is simple, intuitive and scalable – think voice-activated interaction – is an important way for older adults to connect with their loved ones, engage with their community and build new social connections.

Shelley Gilberg


Shelley Gilberg is IBM Vice President, Global Leader Healthcare & Life Sciences Centre of Competency.