Considerable emphasis and financial investment is happening in the creation of what I will call old age tech. It is designed to help those who want to stay in their homes and to make up for the shortfall of personnel in skilled nursing homes and assisted living facilities. This is becoming a billion dollar business. They are prototyping and producing motion trackers, communication devices and health sensors at a very sophisticated level. I would challenge the concept that technology is the best and most immediate solution to provide care with less human contact.
Yes, tech can provide a reliable interface between caregiver and an isolated senior. Even as firms herald their high tech achievements , it will inevitably mean more low touch. Home care could be reduced to: push the button by a certain time or we come over to see what happened to you scenario. In other words, contact is made after there is a medical crisis or fall.
Squaring off in the other corner of reason and reality are studies that have found that lack of real face to face interaction has a direct impact on the health of older people. On the political spectrum, Congress recently actually had a hearing on the issue of social isolation and seniors. They were told by experts that social isolation is a silent killer ** see testimony link below. Whether this information would make a difference to stop all the proposed cuts to social programs, we can only hope. Meals on Wheels provides a morsel of human contact along with the nutrition. Senior centers are still critical as reliable places to meet and greet one’s contemporaries.
On the academic front, psychologist Susan Pinker in her book, The Village Effect, makes this point for all ages,
“Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters and, like a vaccine, they protect you now in the present and well into the future.”
She even goes so far as to say that women live longer than men because they invest more in their social relationships. In studies comparing having a conversation via a video connection versus talking in person, the brain lights up in the right places for the face to face encounter. Although I am sure others would argue being a SKYPE grandma has its own rewards.
Will a robotic human voice from a small white cylinder end up being a better than nothing substitute for human interaction? For the younger generation who grew up more virtually wired, it may seem comforting and predictable. For those of us from a different life time cycle, it may seem too strange and intrusive. We have grown old cherishing our privacy as well as our friends. Yes, we can marvel at the immediacy of texting on our phones, sending volumes of emails, and cherish the contact we gather in picture sharing and social media. But nothing substitutes for simple human interaction.
Infants do not thrive if quality human contact does not happen very early in their lives. So at the other end of life we also must have some quality time. Our generation has never been shy about asking for what we want- the real deal.
*Image credit. Ben Shahn The Conversation, Whitney Museum, NY
** Senate testimony: https://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/SCA_Holt_04_27_17.pdf