By Phil Marshman, founder and CEO of Sentai
It is estimated over 2 million elderly UK residents will suffer with loneliness by 2025, with nearly a third of people today aged over 65 and living alone describing themselves as often, or always, feeling lonely – that’s not even taking into account the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had this year.
Two national lockdowns and ongoing social distancing measures have kept those who live alone restricted from the outside world, naturally increasing the already distressing number of people suffering with some form of loneliness.
Like most problems in today’s world, we often turn to technology to find a solution. Caring and supporting the elderly and vulnerable is no different and there has been a high and ongoing demand to offer people who live independently a product that can bring them companionship to combat loneliness, which in the worse cases can lead to depression, stress and anxiety. Family caregivers have also been calling out for a solution that can offer them peace of mind when they can’t physically be present for their elderly loved ones. The stresses around caring for vulnerable family members can also cause poor metal wellbeing for the caregivers themselves – it’s a double-edged sword.
Thankfully, we are now seeing technology being utilised for this suffering sector. Research shows that every £1 invested into tackling loneliness can save up to £3 in health costs, so it makes sense to be looking into technology that can solve the problem, save costs in the long-term, and reduce pressure on our health services.
The recent introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Voice Technology has allowed developers to create agile products that not only assist and support someone who lives alone, but learns from their behaviours to interact in a more personal, meaningful manner.
Take your standard hands-free and voice-controlled smart device, for example. It speaks when spoken to and responds to the user’s commands, which is very useful. Now imagine that device is in the home of someone who lives alone with dementia or another type of memory loss illness. What good is it then? The question then becomes how can we create a two-way conversation where the device is prompting and reminding the user to take their routine medication, for example, or have a videocall with the grandkids. By using a complex algorithm that can learn from its contextual experiences with the user, then loneliness can be significantly reduced among the older population, and even eliminated in some cases.
It is remarkable that 49 per cent of elderly people in the UK state that the TV or their pets offer them their main source of company. Neither can speak back to you and sometimes that is all someone really needs; a meaningful conversation. Pioneering AI and Augmented Voice Technology can offer conversations while helping the user to sustain a healthy and quality lifestyle. Whether it’s talking to someone who lives alone about their day ahead, suggesting they should get some fresh air and exercise with a walk at 2pm, giving them a new recipe to try out, or reminding them their favourite TV programme starts at 5pm, the possibilities are endless and increase the fostering of companionship and even friendship. Furthermore, the device’s warm, friendly voice can be regionalised to suit the user, making them feel even more comfortable and less alone. It may sound unrealistic and too far into the future for a person and a device to interact in this way, but it’s already happening now, and will soon be commonplace in the homes of people across the UK.
While machine learning isn’t revolutionary, using it to reduce loneliness and support caregivers who can’t always be there for their loved ones is. And where does the caregiver fit into this new relationship between their family member and the ever-evolving smart device? Well, products are now available on the market that come equipped with sensors that can monitor the user’s movements, providing text updates on their mobility to relatives and carers, and alerting them in emergencies. Caregivers can even stay connected via a smart app, with daily performance logs and push notifications enabling them to get peace of mind – anxiety and stress is alleviated with this best-in-class independent care.
Although still a fairly new and evolving field of development, technology built to combat loneliness and improve poor mental health will soon be integrated into more typical IOT in the household, allowing it to control other smart devices around the user’s home.
Overall, as more advancements are made in the field of AI in caregiving, we can expect to see more caregiving devices popping up in the homes of people who fall into the 1.4million that feel lonely, and ultimately, that can only be a good thing.