The truth about Elderly Social Isolation


The topic that we have chosen to explore is social isolation and loneliness among seniors. Though they hold many similar traits, isolation and loneliness derive from different emotions in the brain, the former being a more physical experience of separation from others, while loneliness links more with the emotional factors of sadness due to separation. The National Seniors Council of Canada discusses social isolation as a deteriorating condition, as prolonged levels of low quantity and quality of human contact can lead to negative health conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity, and depression. Studies from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), have confirmed that loneliness can increase stress, anxiety, cause poor sleep patterns, compromise the immune system and even lead to early cognitive decline, depression, and heart disease. For seniors to maintain a healthy lifestyle, it is essential to have ways for them to find or access social interaction, and more importantly, make meaningful connections with other people. According to a census released in May 2016 by Statistics Canada, there are 5.9 million people aged 65 and older in Canada, compared to the 5.8 million children under 14. This shows that the country’s elderly population has surpassed its youth population for the first time, and is continuing on a steady incline. It is through user-centered design that we find better lifestyle solutions for the increasing demand in senior health and wellness and social care services.

User Group

The aging demographic is at a steady incline attributing to a wide range of social and cultural diversity. Within the expanding population of the elderly, there are a number of health issues associated with social isolation, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s disease. With such poor mental and physical health, there is also an increased chance of premature death. The reason for many of these issues is due to seniors being more vulnerable to social exclusion, which results in the movement towards social isolation. According to HelpAge Canada, the elderly tend to fight off social exclusion by interacting with family and friends, participating in community activities, and feeling a sense of comfort in their neighbourhood. Seniors likely to experience the most social exclusion are the ones who are older, living in urban areas, have no partner, have activity limitations due to health, were born outside of Canada, or have lower levels of education. Immigrant seniors specifically, reported poorer health status than non-immigrant seniors, primarily due to language and racial barriers. This showcases that a large percent of the elderly demographic experience social isolation, especially within a diverse, multicultural country such as Canada. In order to combat these issues, what we need are more ways for seniors to access socially inclusive interactions, in both private and public spaces.

The Market

The senior demographic has a diverse array of knowledge and experience with new developments in society, being more technologically advanced than most people would assume. Recent master's graduate in community health and gerontology, Sophie Okolo, reports that the vast majority of seniors in the United States have access to a cell-phone, with men over 65 being the largest consumer group of Apple devices. Okolo says that new technologies available on the market, such as Push to Talk, Alcove VR, and Rendever can help make crucial connections and increase in-person interactions. However, for users who do not have English as a mother tongue, such as the majority of Canadian senior immigrants, it is difficult to access the same technology and advance at the same level. Current technology available on the market has yet to address this specific issue.

The systems in place mentioned such as Push to Talk functions are based-off the desire to have instant communication with one or many others. It increases connectivity and socialization with family and friends by making them more easily accessible. What most people would realize though, is that this technology does not resolve the main issue, which is the fact that not all family members have the desire or time out of their day to talk. The service lacks a solution to the fundamental issue of needing to create meaningful connections with people that would benefit all parties. This service, however, does give light to international families that have difficulty accessing family overseas. Push to Talk services are still relevant to discuss at it helps acknowledge the market for global communication and to provide a way for people to easily access a part of their home and culture. Similarly, Alcove VR is a product that attempts to push the boundaries of interaction by changing the way we communicate with family and loved ones. Alcove VR lets people

Figure 1: An infographic that demonstrates how VR can be used to collect useful data on the elderly. VR can be used to assess their emotional response to memories, interactions, and visual stimuli.

interact directly with people that might not be easily accessible in a virtual environment. It breaches the gap between age and introduces a new aspect of enjoyment in interacting with family and loved ones. It also allows people to view and share memories they have stored on the device, building connectivity between people. Alcove also has additional activities that can build relationships such as the ability to explore the world or scroll through compelling shows or movies through their travel and entertainment features. Health and wellness is a large part of what they promote, seen in their inclusion of immersive meditation, therapeutic exercises, and cognitive training games, but also through their push towards connectivity between people. The bigger issues that arise in regards to VR would have to be its inaccessibility to those that cannot afford it, limiting the accessible demographic to the higher-class. It also proves to not have an active usable function for every-day interaction, especially for those that do not have the time or technology. VR still has a way to go before it can prove to be a successful solution to social isolation.

Available Technology

In the digital age, some products have emerged to start combating elderly social isolation. One of these is called Rendever, which allows seniors to use Virtual Reality (VR) to have immersive experiences and travel to remote locations without actually leaving their space. This technology allows individuals to engage in different experiences and share them with others who are also connected to VR headsets, similarly to how Alcove works. Although this technology engages elderly individuals through virtual experiences, it only does so passively and does not facilitate or encourage active social interactions with others. Being immersed in a virtual environment for a prolonged period of time also poses the risks of becoming dissociated with reality and physical social interaction. Other than VR, there is another product called Paro which was developed in Japan as a therapeutic robot seal, aimed to reduce social isolation in older adults who desire company and to reduce their anxiety. The robot is equipped with 5 types of sensors: light, tactile, auditory, temperature and posture, allowing it to respond to certain noises as well as interact with humans. However, this

Figure 2: This is an image of the Paro robot in action. It responds by flapping its arms, blinking its eyes, and making audio reactions to a user’s command and physical touch. It recognizes environmental responses as well such as levels of emitting light, temperature, and motion.

technology is very expensive and cannot replace real human contact due to the lack of natural human attributes that we relate to such as breath and the value of another human conscience. The fact of the matter is, the Paro robot was designed for therapeutic purposes in patients and their caregivers. It was developed for reasons such as reducing patient stress, to stimulate interaction between patient and caregiver, improve relaxation and motivation, and to improve overall socialization. Its creation was never meant to be used as a permanent companion or solution to the effects of social isolation, but as a responsive mechanism to patients’ needs. The real takeaway from the Paro robot is its use of machine learning to remember the user's preferences, being stroked when patients wanted it to repeat an action and hit when the user had a negative response to the action. A significant danger that should be acknowledged, is the aggressive stimuli that beating can cause, especially for those that showcase mental deterioration. It should be understood that we take into consideration the natural process of aging and its mental and physical debilitations.

Another popular product that has been developed that has influenced elderly social isolation is the smart speaker. Smart speakers such as Google Home or Amazon Echo, can be used to help seniors stay connected with their friends and family through voice recognition without the hassle of learning how to use a smartphone or computer. With Artificial intelligence (AI) technology, they can also give a report of the weather forecast, answer questions, and play music as basic controls, including hidden features such as the broadcast attribute where people with multiple smart speakers can communicate between them like convenient walkie-talkies. A common attribute to the other pieces of technology that we discussed, is that smart speakers also has no ability to replace physical companionship. While smart speakers can temporarily alleviate loneliness, it is similar to the effect of all these virtual spaces in that it also does not evoke the same effect that physical human interaction can offer. In summary, many technological products or devices have yet to facilitate stronger human interactions in the physical world.

User Experience

As mentioned previously, one way of combating social isolation among seniors is to find ways for them to better access socially inclusive interactions in private and public spaces. Ph.D. student at the Luskin School of Public Health, Lia Marshall, discusses the importance for the elderly to have a sense of community and independence in order to feel comfortable. Seniors frequently find comfort in seeking out public parks to gain tranquility and to be able to reach out to their community. As a result, the accessibility of these

Figure 3: A birds-eye-view model of Alzheimer’s Australian Memory Garden Design. It contains circuited paths in order for caretakers to keep an eye on patients, and for patients to feel secure in not getting lost.

public locations need to be taken into consideration to eliminate any physical barrier. This is especially important for those who are experiencing a natural decline in mobility and cannot easily travel to farther locations. Emotional barriers such as the safety of the social atmosphere should also be taken into account when discussing the quality of these public locations for the senior demographic. For the elderly, a great amount of encouragement and support is needed for them to feel comfortable reaching out to find the physical and mental interactions that they need to feel content. Some may find it scary to seek out the company of others when they are not sure whether they will be judged negatively, treated as a burden, or completely ignored. This is a common response for the elderly population and is a major contributing factor to the lack of motivation. An article from Maclean’s says it is important to make seniors feel alive and wanted. This could be seen through having someone they can greet and talk to regularly, or someone to care enough to spend time with them. Including all aspects of these interactions together would lead to a better overall mental state and experience in life.

Current Ecosystems

In terms of technological devices, a lot of the current solutions proposed are related to virtual interactions rather than physical ones. However, what seniors need are physical interactions, such as companionship, social activities, social gatherings, etc. In terms of services, one of the current marketing trends is to improve living situations and standards for a greater amount of people. A newfound viable service called HomeShare, matches young individuals (usually students at a university or college), with a senior citizen living in a similar area. In return for providing company and occasional help with the senior’s day-to-day life, the student living with them can now have affordable housing at a low to non-existent cost. This is a system that closes the bridge between youth and the elderly, providing a healthy economic solution for student housing, and showcasing a more human-centered solution to social isolation among seniors. As mentioned earlier,

Figure 4: Using services like HomeShare have shown to increase public interaction for the elderly while also improving their socialization in every-day life. It is a solution that benefits all parties involved.

some seniors enjoy seeking out public parks to find tranquility or to reach out to their community. However, this can result in encounters with dangerous youth in the area, obstructing their ability to feel comfortable in certain spaces. HomeShare provides seniors with students that could accompany them to these social spaces, allowing greater safety and more independence than being taken by a caregiver. It also gives students and youth an opportunity to understand and empathize with the elderly as aging is inevitable and will be a process that they will experience further along in life. Reducing the physical and mental barriers that some of the elderly face can greatly improve their health, mental well-being, and social awareness to better living habits.

Design Brief

The project that I want to create is a sun-powered trackpad that would work to increase social interactivity between people. The main focus is based-off the need for elderly people to receive physical human interactions and companionship, using technology throughout park paths to encourage people interaction as they are a popular and accessible location for seniors. This would be accompanied by collecting data of popular demographics to recommend locations that similar people would frequently visit for better public interaction. I was inspired by the Alzheimer Memory Gardens in its intuitive and aesthetic structure, to implement a technology that would first start out along park paths to build connections between the elderly, and have it grow into an endless network of development in urban-life.

The basic functionality of the trackpad would be for people to interact by stepping on it along their journey through the park, documenting how far and where each person had ventured along the path. It would then consist of having a tracking system that would take machine-learning algorithms to recognize and remember the demographic of people who have used it, eventually developing into a system where people would be able to see the locations of their friends or be told the average demographic that visits that particular location. It could also then start recommending safe locations where other elderly people usually venture, decreasing the likelihood of unexpected danger and increasing the prospect of better social interactions. The trackpad also has the advantage of not needing physical human touch as that is an easy way to transmit bacteria. As an outdoor installation, it is important for the trackpad to endure all environmental hazards.

I would like to include fun visual and audible sensors that would make interacting with the trackpad enjoyable, increasing the likelihood of its future success of being utilized as a functional tool in a daily setting. Starting out as a fun piece of technology for the elderly to interact with, the trackpad has the potential to develop into a tool of convenience for people as the information it can obtain can be utilized, eventually providing services like monitorization, destination approximations, location rendering, and social connectivity. Unlike VR, this device would mix the virtual space into the real world rather than the other way around, promoting repeated use as there is no personal financial demand or difficult prerequisite skill needed to use it. The aspect of not needing any financial commitment, vocal communication, or an extensive amount of time to interact with the device also appeals to people of all origins. Busy business owners, recent immigrants to Canada, the homeless, kids, animals, anyone is able to participate and easily interact with the device.


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A product designer from Toronto dedicated to user experience.

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