Loneliness has been an epidemic even before the life-changing events caused by Covid-19. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, found that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to peoples’ health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and contributes to early mortality.
No matter if that comparison holds true or not, it's certainly evident that loneliness keeps spreading in a world that feels more and more connected.
When we think of a demographic that is most threatened by loneliness, the older generations tend to come to mind first. However, it’s also younger people who are massively affected. According to a 2018 survey conducted by The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) 22% (US) and 23% (UK) of millennials say that they always or often feel lonely, left out or isolated.
Is there a way for technology, which is often blamed for being one of the main causes for loneliness, to offer a remedy to the loneliness epidemic?
In a one-year R&D project developed within the Innovate UK framework, we at Aflorithmic developed a technology-driven approach to help fight loneliness, focussing on people who have limited access to social interaction.
Distance, Time and Awkwardness
More specifically, we wanted to develop something for people who live in care homes or remote areas, which is typically an older demographic. These people often have relatives and friends, but tend to suffer from limited social interaction. According to our studies, the 4 main reasons relatives claim to prevent them from interacting with their loved ones are:
- Physical distance to the loved one
- Not enough time to connect or visit
- Awkwardness and reluctance to connect
- Lack of device connectivity
While it can’t be a solution to more personal visits, we are positive that technology can still offer its share to social interaction.
The solution we think can contribute to offering more social interaction is called EEVA (Electronic Elderly Virtual Assistant). Its concept is based on scheduling audio messages through a mobile app and sending them to landlines.
Two ways to create an audio message
The EEVA app allows users to record a message and schedule it using their phones. The service then calls a landline attached to the profile of the receiving person and delivers the audio message to them.
The first way to deliver an audio message is by literally recording it on your phone, and scheduling it at a day and time to a specific person. This helps overcome the challenge of physical distance and to some extent the lack of time for interacting with your loved one. However, it’s only partially effective when not knowing what to say, or the loved one not using a mobile phone to receive the audio message on.
The other main feature EEVA offers is far more advanced: It allows you to clone your own voice. This enables you to write or paste any text, and convert it into your own voice. The functionality makes it possible that messages become much more diverse and automatable. For example, you can schedule a good morning message once, set it to repeat every day, and your loved one will receive a different message each time. You can also schedule anniversaries such as birthdays, or remind the loved one of a wonderful moment the two of you shared. This helps when not knowing what to say or when there is simply not enough time, while still offering your loved one moments of social interaction.
Connecting with the entire family
EEVA allows family members to share a schedule for their loved ones too. For example, your daughter might send a good morning message each Monday and Wednesday, while you send a pill reminder every day at noon. This helps loved ones maintain routines, gives them wonderful moments of memories and helps them to feel valued, while not having to learn to use any new technology, such as a mobile phone or a smart speaker.
A library of relevant messages
When interacting with loved ones you’ll want to make sure your messages are appropriate, timely and positive.
EEVA comes with 10 categories of predefined messages. Your name as well as the name of your loved one will be automatically included into each message.
- “Good Morning” messages
Good morning John. Today will be cold, so wear a warm sweater. Love you, Sarah.
- “Good Night” messages
Good night John! This is Sarah. I hope you have a restful night's sleep.
- “Anniversary” messages
I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday. I wish I could tell you this in person but all of us here in the family are thinking about you!
- “Thinking About You” messages
Hi there mum! Just felt like sharing a smile with you today. Thinking of you, Sarah.
- “Moment together” messages
Grandpa, do you remember our morning coffees on the terrace?
- “We just did this” messages
Hey! We had fun today playing football with our neighbours, wish you were with us! Love, Sarah.
- “Remember to…” messages
Just a reminder that you have to take the heart pill before lunch.
- “Something to think about” messages
Morning dad. Always remember: Prepare in the morning, reflect at night.
- “Awareness” messages
Dad, please be aware that the caretaker staff are really appreciating you as a person.
- “News” messages
Hello Robert, I just wanted to let you know that Arsenal won against FC Barcelona last night!
Each of these messages will be converted in audio and delivered to the landline of the loved one.
AI-based technology can help build a bridge between people, be it among family members or friends. EEVA offers a great opportunity to improve the life quality of a loved one by making them feel appreciated, loved and supported.
However, using technology can be a double-edged sword, and great care must be taken to ensure appropriate use of it. There are a number of ethical questions related to a service such as EEVA. For example, is it appropriate to have a cloned voice speak to your loved ones? How do you make sure the receiving person understands that EEVA is a messaging service and not a real call from you? Will family members understand that EEVA is not designed to replace interaction altogether but merely serve as an additional aid? What is the right frequency to send messages, ensuring the loved one actually feels cared for and won’t be annoyed by countless messages?
Questions like these should be discussed within the family in person, including the loved one who lives in a care home, or by themselves. It’s a great way to understand each other better, to interact and make a great plan for delivering messages that improve the lives of all of the people involved. Taking care is what it’s all about.