Harnessing technology to connect the disconnected
A new report has found that the annual cost of loneliness to the UK economy in the over 50s alone is a massive £1.8 billion. What role can digital technology play in tackling this issue? CEO of Vodafone UK Nick Jeffery explains.
Loneliness can impact anyone at any age and at any time in their lives. Young people leaving home and the friends they grew up to start a job or university. Parents with young children finding it difficult to adapt to a completely new way of life.
There are now an estimated 1.5 million people over 50 who are suffering from chronic loneliness. Living alone after the loss of a loved one, for example, can deeply affect a person’s mental wellbeing. Older people experiencing loneliness are nearly three times more likely to develop symptoms of depression, and almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with dementia. The Red Cross believes that if we do not tackle this issue, our ageing population will lead to two million often lonely older people by 2026.
Loneliness clearly has a huge impact on an individual’s emotional and physical wellbeing. It also has significant implications for public services like the NHS, businesses, and society at large. A new report published today by Vodafone has attempted to quantify the cost of loneliness in every part of the UK.
The research found that the annual cost of loneliness to the UK economy in the over 50s alone is a massive £1.8 billion. Business is losing hundreds of millions of pounds a year due to staff having to take time off work to care for friends or family suffering from loneliness. Public services are feeling the pinch too, with studies finding that those feeling lonely are twice as likely to visit their GP and over three times more likely to enter local authority-funded social care.
It is easy to assume that the best way to tackle loneliness is to simply increase social interaction. In reality, the underlying causes of loneliness are complex and varied. These can range from the physical or psychological to the financial, or a mix of the three.
What is clear is that there is no single response. Across the country there are some great examples of how charities and businesses are working to tackle loneliness. Co-op Funeralcare has set up bereavement groups to offer structured support, informal coffee mornings and life coaching. Village Agents across the country focus on those both physically and socially isolated, providing help with practical tasks such as organising transport to get people to appointments and arranging for a handyperson to adapt their home.
Digital technology can also play an important role in tackling loneliness. At Vodafone we have designed a wristband specifically to support independent living. By utilising the mobile network, users can leave their home with the confidence that they can get help when they need it. The band comes with an SOS button and an easy-to-use app that means families can be directly alerted if the wearer needs help. It also uses fall detection technology so that families can be automatically alerted if the wearer falls in the home or whilst they are out.
There are other great examples of where technology can play a valuable role in reducing loneliness. One company has developed a smart device which sits on top of a TV and links elderly people to their carers or family members through their screens, keeping them connected to their friends and the local community. Another company has developed a robot that reduces the risk of people with long- term illnesses from becoming isolated, by enabling people to participate in social events remotely. The robot has allowed children to be able to experience school trips or be part of the classroom even when they are physically unable to be there.
There have traditionally been a number of challenges the uptake of this technology. One major barrier is that the take up of technology in those aged over 50, and particular for those aged over 75, is relatively low with more than half of the latter age group having never used the internet.
To tackle this digital deficit we need to help older people feel more comfortable using digital technology. As a proud British business we are committed to playing our part. This month we will be launching a nationwide programme of free tech master classes. These sessions will provide information and advice on everything from ‘how do I set up my phone’ to ‘how do I use social media’. They will also help set up wearable tech and connected home devices and explain how they work. Not only this, but our Tech Teams in retail stores across the country can lend a hand at any time.
There is no silver bullet that will tackle the significant personal, societal and economic costs associated with loneliness. What we do know is that unless government, business and community groups work together to deliver innovative new ideas to help people at all stages in their lives, then that feeling of disconnection could be felt by an increasing number of people.
Nick Jeffery is the CEO of Vodafone UK. Vodafone’s new report, Harnessing technology to tackle loneliness, is available here. If you want to take part in the online conversation, use #TechConnect on twitter.