When Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa acquired the company that makes Lovot, a pet-sized robot for emotional support, it spoke about more than a financial investment in robotics. The news was tied to love, companionship, and healing. It also revealed the global loneliness and social isolation pandemic. The use of assistive robots is gaining popularity in Japan and China to deal with the caregiver shortage because social isolation is particularly acute within the aging population.
As a social worker focused on aging, I’ve seen how bringing people together with similar health goals and interests can create community and foster social connections. Lockdowns during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic brought uncertainty and the need to keep older adults connected while socially distancing. Connecting with others offers more than socialization.
The causes of social isolation and loneliness vary from one person to another. One thing is clear – loneliness is a threat to health and well-being, and if left unchecked, it could lead to prolonged social isolation. Older adults are at risk of both conditions, which makes them more susceptible to a series of physical and mental health problems. Growing evidence indicates that loneliness is associated with mild cognitive impairment and dementia. Some of the health consequences of prolonged loneliness include a greater risk for heart disease and stroke and an increased risk of premature death.
Social isolation contributes to relapse and overdose rates. The nation’s opioid crisis has continued during the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is a significant increase in opioid overdose among older adults. Ageism and stereotypes rarely put older adults as drug users. Those dealing with declining cognitive function and taking prescribed opioids for chronic conditions could be more vulnerable to overdose, especially if chronically isolated.
While social robots may be helpful, they come at a price. Lovot costs close to $3,000 and an $80 monthly service fee. Another robot manufactured in Japan that’s FDA-approved is PARO, deemed a $6,000 medical device.
There may be better ways to decrease feelings of loneliness and social isolation than turning to robots that not only lack social contact but also infantilize older adults.
First, give virtual programming a try. This includes fitness classes, support groups, and evidence-based workshops that offer tools and education needed to decrease the risk of falling or to effectively manage chronic health conditions. Participation in health promotion programming might offer a chance to connect with others dealing with similar health problems, while offering education on preventing disease. Not sure where to find them? Your Area Agency on Aging might be able to help.
For those with very limited interactions with family, friends, or neighbors, different friendly caller programs are offered throughout the nation. These programs usually have vetted volunteers who, after training, get in touch with those individuals who have agreed to receive regular friendly calls. AARP offers the Friendly Voices Program. You might also want to consider being that needed volunteer. Increased social contacts and a sense of belonging are some of the positive effects that might be possible from volunteering or from engaging in self-transcendent behaviors.
Even individuals dealing with social isolation might have good reasons for having some apprehension around others. They might be using previous experiences that might cause them to move cautiously in social interactions. According to University of Chicago researchers, lonely people’s brains feeling vulnerable engage in self-preservation. This greater focus on themselves causes them to lose social skills. Like pain forces us to move our hands from a burning stove, short-term loneliness signals the need for social connections.
Increase your confidence in talking to strangers! This is easier said than done for many of us. Thank goodness there are plenty of self-help books, articles, podcasts, and videos trying to help people gain the skills and confidence needed to connect with unfamiliar individuals (yes, what we call strangers). The HOPE Lab (Helping Older People Engage) is conducting very promising studies and interventions, including a social conversational program skills training program for older adults.
This last recommendation might be confusing given the rise of money scams targeting older adults. However, the increased isolation during COVID-19 has made this problem worse. Staying connected to others could offer some protection against fraud and scams.
Like researcher John Cacciopo asserted over a decade ago, loneliness can strike anyone. It’s important to not get stuck on that brief feeling. The response and steps taken next matter, especially if it involves increasing social connections. It’s never late to make lifestyle changes.
Grisel Rodriguez-Morales is a social worker.
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