I spent five years speaking with people in nursing homes. This is what I learnt about loneliness

ABC Radio National 


Gurney, aged 90, tells me he wants to join a youth club or go roller-skating. He's witty, with a solid sense of humour.

He's also sick of life in a nursing home, even though it's not a bad place.

The bingo nights. The boredom. The loneliness.

He has no-one to talk to — "really" talk to, he tells me.

Gurney's been living in a Victorian care home for seven years. His wife has died and his only son lives in Scotland. He's frail and can't go outside on his own.

"Loneliness consumes you when you're old," he says.

Gurney is one of more than 150 aged care residents I've spent time with in the five years I've been researching loneliness.

I've learnt that his experience is far from unique.

Other residents told me their loneliness is "the worst thing in the world". They feel "unwanted", "dumped", "forgotten".

They're "waiting to die". They cry themselves to sleep.

Could help lie in communication apps, virtual reality or even robots?

Too many of us misunderstand loneliness

One in six Australians feel lonely, and a third of Australians say loneliness is a problem for them, according to the ABC's Australia Talks National Survey of 54,000 people.

Twenty-four percent of respondents say they go a day or more without talking to another person; that experience is more likely for people over 50.

But are we all on the same page about just what loneliness is?

Too often I hear comments like, "Wait, residents of nursing homes can't feel lonely because they have so many people around, right?"

Not quite. Loneliness is about lacking companionship, about not belonging.

I can have many friends and family members and still feel lonely. The problem is not quantity of social relationships, but their quality in our lives. The emphasis is on meaningful relationships.

Living with others does not mean that we feel close to them.

Not all older people are lonely, but loneliness is a critical issue in later life.

One in five older Australians feel lonely, particularly those aged 75 and over.

Those who live in aged care facilities or live alone, and have health issues that limit their mobility are more likely to experience loneliness.

The number of older Australians feeling lonely is estimated to drastically rise with a growing ageing population.

Loneliness is a social and public health issue.

Lonely older people are more likely to experience depression, physical and cognitive decline, and a range of illnesses that require long-term care.

For example, loneliness increases the risk of dementia by 40 percent for the older population, regardless of gender, education, ethnicity and even genetic risk.

Loneliness is also one of the top causes of social exclusion among older people.

It's something we need to take seriously.

A robotic dog called Biscuit

There's plenty of research that shows the potential of technology to help tackle loneliness.

But we know that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Older people are very different in their resources, abilities and desires.

Technology — when it's used intelligently and respectfully, when it's been designed with the input of those who will use it — can be personalised to meet these different needs.

For example, an iPad app that I evaluated in care homes allowed one resident, Pam, to more easily communicate with family using video, text, audio and pictures.

When I first met her, Pam never smiled or made eye contact with me. She would look out of the window when we were talking, lost in thought.

Her family lived abroad, and she had no friends in the care home.

After three months of using the app, she began to greet me with a smile.

She started to show me videos and pictures of her grandchildren, cousins and relatives she'd reconnected with. I would hear her laughing and talking to other residents.

When I completed the study, she hugged me. "There's hope," she said.

Virtual reality can prove powerful in the aged care setting too.

Gail, 83, lives with a mild cognitive impairment and needs to use a wheelchair. She was isolating herself and had no interest in group activities.

In sessions led by my colleague Dr. Steven Baker, virtual reality technology allowed Gail to personalise her activities.

Using Google Earth VR she could visit her former home and her old street.

In one session, she asked to check the address of her granddaughter as she wanted to 'visit' her place. She was elated when she saw it through the VR and she called her granddaughter immediately after.

Personalised VR gave Gail the ability to 'leave' the care home and visit new environments, and provided new reasons to converse with family and friends.

Robots can offer help too, with the power to read the news, play games and connect someone to their loved ones and the world around them.

Take Biscuit, the robotic dog.

In a new study led by my colleague Dr. Jenny Waycott, we are comparing different robotic companions. In the first stage of the study, we introduced Biscuit via video to Ron, an older man I met in his home just a few weeks before he was to move to an aged care facility for health reasons.

Ron lived alone in his small apartment, packed with meds and papers. Two banjos sat on a coffee table in the living room. Playing them was all he had left of a once active life.

Now, he could seldom go outside. He had no visitors and saw his two relatives only at Christmas time.

Ron said he'd love a little Jack Russel. He was feeling lonely and a dog could definitely help. But he explained he couldn't take care of a real dog.

Biscuit, the fluffy robotic dog, made him smile. Ron's facial and body expressions completely changed when he saw Biscuit. He found the robot affectionate; not real — but almost.

'Why are you interested in old people?'

It is important to be clear that technology on its own does not solve loneliness.

If it doesn't enable meaningful social interactions, it can even have the reverse effect.

Care home resident Chris told me he didn't get any replies to messages he'd sent through a communication app to his family and friends. The technology made him more aware of his loneliness.

We need to reject "techno-solutionism", or the idea that technology by itself will fix all our social problems.

Instead, when using or developing technology to assist with loneliness, we must recognise the diverse needs and aspirations of older people.

This means we need to involve them in the design of technology-based initiatives to tackle loneliness.

Technology cannot be seen in isolation. Social contexts matter, and they can affect how technology is used and its impact.

Gurney and I both know he's the subject of stigma and discrimination.

"People say, '90 years old, come down a notch'," he tells me.

"You're not given credit for any logical thought."

When I discuss my research with the general public, students and even fellow academics, I'm often struck by their ageist comments.

"Why don't you study children instead?"

"You look so young. Why are you interested in old people?"

"But don't old people make themselves lonely because they're always cranky?"

Addressing attitudes like these is an important step towards improving the lives of older people and tackling their loneliness.

Technology is a technical and social tool and should be approached as such. When it's used effectively and in a supporting context, it can dramatically improve the lives of some of our most vulnerable community members.

But technology alone can't change the stigma. We need to step up to doing that too.

Dr. Barbara Barbosa Neves is a senior lecturer in sociology at Monash University, and an ABC Top 5 humanities and social sciences scholar for 2019.