A recent BBC survey has found that 4 million people in the UK expect to spend most of Christmas day alone. This isn't just a problem at this time of year. One in ten people over 65 say they feel lonely all or most of the time. So, how can we as individuals tackle loneliness, and can technology help?

A common response when digital is suggested as a solution in this area is that it can't help older people who aren't online, or it makes loneliness worse. I'm interested in which digital tools we can use to enable more relationships to be created and nurtured, rather than replacing personal interaction. Here are three small ideas about how tech can be used in this way. I'd love to hear from you if you have more examples.

Loneliness is an unwanted emotional experience when there is a mismatch between the quality and quantity of relationships we have and those we want.

The Campaign to End Loneliness

Using TouchNote App for staying in touch

I've been using Touchnote to send photo postcards to my grandmother who is 93 and lives in a village in Buckinghamshire. I simply can't visit as much as I would like. She has always loved visiting museums and galleries, and having lived in Berlin and Paris as young woman, she always wants to know what is happening in the city. Now unable to take coach trips to London with her local art group she feels cut off. She said to me recently, "Nobody I know goes anywhere! Can you tell me about exhibitions you've seen?" So I've started sending her photo postcards. The thing that makes this brilliant, is instead of guiltily writing every six weeks apologising for not having the time to stop and put pen to paper, I can contact my grandmother as easily as Whatsapping with my little sister. It takes a couple of minutes and it goes directly in the post, with no carrying a card around in your handbag for 3 days forgetting to buy stamps.

Online tools that enable face-to-face interaction

Writing to an older person is no replacement for the intimacy of spending time together. In my freelance days I worked with start-up social enterprise Spots of Time alongside founder Anna Mouser, supporting volunteers and placement organisations. Spots of Time piloted an online micro-volunteering platform, enabling busy care homes to take on volunteers on a one-off or occasional basis. A simple digital interface for volunteers to sign up to 'Spots' made it easy for young professionals to pop into a care home or day centre when they had time, without fuss and filling out forms. It wasn’t about making older people use the web.

I'd love to see something like Spots of Time develop into a mobile app so people could book in when they are on the move, and to show places that are close to where they are. You could be working on the same street as a day centre who would love some lunchtime volunteers.

Building empathy and understanding

We can also use digital tools to help us empathise with other people with different needs to ours. MxM's Andy Walker is working on a prototype to demonstrate to others what hearing loss is like. It shows the results of hearing tests against the high and low sound register and plays clips to demonstrate what talking sounds like to someone with hearing loss. Hearing loss can affect people at all ages, and is common for older people. When everyone speaks at once and you can only catch every third word it can be really isolating and challenging to participate fully. You can be lonely in a crowded room.

This kind of tool could be used to help families, carers and other service practitioners understand how to best communicate with older people with hearing loss. Andy will be sharing the story of what he is making soon.

These are just three things I've thought about this week. There are a great number of digital tools using a personal approach to tackle loneliness. A few more:

  • Amazing products like Mindings and SpeakSet helping people stay in touch with their families
  • Georgie has previously blogged about this issue and raised how Skype has empowered "Grannies" to support children's learning in India
  • Helping carers communicate and coordinate has been made simple with the Jointly app created by Carers UK and Sidekick Studios

There are lots on non-tech ways we can make a difference too. Small interactions matter. Make conversation at the bus stop, or hallway of your flats. #Take10 to make a phone call to someone you haven't spoken to in a while. Smile. Happy Christmas.

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