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Innovations to Fight Isolation

From animated avatars to cuddly 'pets,' new and surprising ways older people can be more connected

Man talking to his family using Amazon Echo

Courtesy of Amazon

Smart speakers, robot pets and animal avatars are just a few of the new tools now available — thanks to ever-evolving technology — that help combat loneliness for caregivers and their loved ones. 

Research has shown, again and again, that social isolation is a huge health risk for older adults and their caregivers. People who are lonely or socially isolated are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke, to develop type 2 diabetes and to experience cognitive decline. And they’re twice as likely to die prematurely. 

The best cure for loneliness, of course, is being around other people, but maintaining those connections gets more challenging as you age. Spouses and friends pass away, and physical challenges can make it difficult to leave the house. Younger family members may live across the country or be busy with jobs and children. Caregivers, meanwhile, are often so busy with the demands of caring for a loved one that they may neglect their own relationships.

“In the old days, grandma moved in with the family, and she would have company 24 hours a day,” says Joseph Kvedar, M.D., author of The New Mobile Age: How Technology Will Extend the Healthspan and Optimize the Lifespan. “Now that we don’t do that anymore, we need to find a way to fill the gap, and technology can help with that.” 

While nothing has been invented that can replace live human companionship, a growing number of technologies and tools aim to combat social isolation, engage those over 65 and ease the burden on caregivers.

Here are a few technologies that caregiving and senior advocates are particularly excited about:

Woman sitting with a Joy For All cat

Courtesy of Hasbro

Hasbro Joy For All robotic pet

Plenty of research shows that playing with a pooch or petting a purring kitty brings owners (both young and old) plenty of joy, but many older adults are unable to care for a real pet. These furry robotic pets (above) (joyforall.com, $99-119) are designed to provide the same kind of comfort, companionship and fun as the real-life dogs and cats they mimic. They have realistic fur and a vibrating heartbeat, and they respond to being petted, talked to and hugged much like their live counterparts. If you pet the cat’s cheek, for example, it will nuzzle its head into your hand and give a lifelike purr. Keep petting, and it may roll onto its back for a tummy rub. The pup barks and cocks its head in your direction when you speak. Caregivers report that the pets bring happiness and comfort to older adults, especially those with memory deficits. “You know it’s a toy, but it’s just interactive enough that it fools your brain into caring for it,” Kvedar says. “My colleague gave one to an elderly family member, and she just loved having it as a companion when her family couldn’t be there.” 

Man using a GeriJoy virtual pet

Courtesy of GeriJoy

GeriJoy virtual pet

Picture this: An animated dog or cat on a screen that can chat with an older adult in real time, ask about the grandkids, show photos of special moments and even compliment a new sweater. What makes this product unique is that real, flesh-and-blood caregivers control the GeriJoy pet’s speech and interactions from the other side of the screen, making intelligent and compassionate conversation possible. If the pet senses your loved one is feeling down, it may display photos of favorite people or moments and ask questions about their past. If a pet's owner arrives home after getting her hair done, her pet may tell her how pretty she looks. And if you pet it through the screen, hearts float up from its head and it appears to nuzzle your finger. A service of care.coach, GeriJoy pets (above) ($279/month. gerijoy.com) can also play games, tell jokes and discuss the news. Caregivers report that a friendly relationship often blossoms between their loved one and their GeriJoy, and even caregivers enjoy light-hearted exchanges with the pet. “This is a good example of an integration of technology and human-ness, because there are human beings on the back end,” Kvedar says. You set up the pet on a tablet in a prominent location, and program it to remember the names of family members, favorite TV shows, lifetime achievements and more. It checks on clients a few times an hour, offers reminders about medication and physical activity, and provides family caregivers with a log of the day’s activities, including detailed accounts of conversations. 

Voice-enabled smart speakers

“The best thing about these is that they respond to your voice, which is so much easier for seniors,” says Laurie Orlov, the founder of Aging in Place Technology Watch. The simple interface provides easy access to news briefings, look up recipes, play a song, turn on the lights and check the weather — without having to hassle with a keyboard. Amazon’s Echo Show (at top) (Amazon.com, $129) is an especially good choice for older adults because it includes a screen. They can make hands-free video calls to anyone who has an Echo or the Alexa app on their phones, and the device’s “Drop-in” feature is helpful to caregivers because it lets you pop in to see connected friends and family members anytime. “They can set medication reminders, add things to their shopping list and schedule food deliveries. And I like the way the Echo Show displays the text of what’s being said in a large font,” says Orlov.

You know it’s a toy, but it’s interactive enough that it fools your brain into caring for it.

— Joseph Kvedar, M.D.

Matchmaking sites (Stitch.net, OurTime.com, SilverSingles)

For older adults or caregivers looking for companionship, several online dating sites are designed exclusively for the over-50 crowd. Users upload a profile and a photo, and the sites have different ways of finding potential matches. Stitch.net allows you to search for a platonic friendship match as well. “Even if someone is not looking for a long-term relationship, going out and having fun and a social life is so important,” says Patty Hagen, senior director at the Cahnmann Center for Supportive Services at the Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. “I know a lot of people who have had success with these.”

Caregiver: Just for You

Websites, apps and podcasts to assist and support the caregiver

AARP Caregivers in the Community app. This free app (iTunes, GooglePlay) asks a few questions, then matches you to caregivers in your area who are in a similar situation. The app also includes helpful tips and hacks. 

AgingCare.comThis online community for caregivers features a lively forum where you can post questions, discuss everyday challenges and get advice and encouragement from other caregivers. The site also includes a wealth of tips and information organized by topic, from how to deal with unhelpful siblings to choosing adult briefs.

Wellspouse.orgA support site specifically for those caring for a spouse, it connects you to telephone and in-person support groups so you can meet others who understand what you’re going through. “The telephone groups are a great way to connect if it’s tough for you to leave home,” says Diana Denholm, author of The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook.

The Family Caregiver Alliance. The family care navigator tool at caregiver.org will help you locate caregiver resources (including support groups) in your community.

Caregiving podcasts. Download a podcast app to hear discussions and practical advice on caregiving and to remember that you are not alone! You can listen while you complete other tasks. Search for episodes on Caregiving Podcast Network or The Frontlines of Caregiving

Read the full series on caregiving and technology

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