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How technology can help seniors beat loneliness and isolation

Sonja Bauman, 39, and Mariela Florez, 83, taking one of their regular walks in Plantation, Fla. The pair met through an online platform called Papa that provides "family on demand." (Photo by Sonja Bauman)

In March, Sonja Bauman, 39, used an online platform called Papa, which offers “family on demand,” to meet Mariela Florez, an 83-year-old retiree. Despite living with her adult children, Florez was bored and lonely when they left for work. Her recoveries from a stroke and broken hip were going slowly. Bauman began visiting twice per week; they take walks, strengthening Florez’s hip, and play games like Connect Four for mental stimulation. “It’s very important for me so I don’t feel lonely all day long,” said Florez. Her memories, blurred by the stroke, are gradually returning.

Papa is one of a growing number of tech approaches to the problem of societal isolation among seniors, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Some of these services focus especially on deepening social connections between the generations — relationships that support the health of older and younger people alike. “I enjoy seeing Mariela as much as she enjoys seeing me,” Bauman said.

Examples of these platforms draw from a variety of mediums. “We’ve evolved into a community for older adults who want to give back to the world,” said Dana Griffin, CEO of Eldera, a site for video conversations between children and mentors age 60 and up. Other new tools for connection take the form of virtual reality apps. Here are some examples.

Connecting in real life

Telehealth expert Andrew Parker founded Papa in 2017 to improve the health outcomes of older adults and families. Seniors can meet people — some their grandkids’ age — for healthy activities, while working parents find retirees to watch their children. These “Papa Pals” are provided as a benefit through Medicare, Medicaid and some employer health plans.

Last year, Papa connected Bauman, the 39-year-old Floridian, with another woman in her mid-70s who lives alone and has very limited mobility. Bauman began driving her to doctor’s appointments and helping her with chores around the house. “When I’m not there, she doesn’t leave her apartment,” said Bauman. The two have gone to the gym together, and they walk slowly through the neighborhood, chatting so it feels less like exercise.

Parker believes users of all ages can benefit from Papa. “Many of our Pals feel more comfortable opening up with older members than their same-aged friends,” he said.

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Other platforms aim for similar, in-person connections. Generation Tech unites teens with seniors for technology training. And Mon Ami, which provides case management software for aging and disability service providers, has an app that connects isolated older people with college-age volunteers.

Connecting through video chatting

Several new sites match you with strangers for real-time video chatting on various topics, such as finding common ground on political issues. Other video platforms focus on intergenerational connections.

S. Jay Olshansky, a gerontology professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, recalls the first time he saw Hyunseung Lee, an 11-year-old from Seoul, through his computer screen. The kid was shy, but Olshansky, 67, encouraged him to ask questions. “Turns out, he was thirsting for this kind of interaction.”

They’d connected through Eldera, the platform that pairs mentors and mentees, using an algorithm. “The time and wisdom of older adults is the most important natural resource we can give future generations,” said Griffin, the CEO. “Connecting through a screen is the opposite of social media.”

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In weekly meetings, Olshansky noticed Lee’s unique interest in math. “There’s something special in you,” Olshansky told him. “How do we bring it to the surface?” He suggested Lee write a book on his favorite subject, and the preteen ran with it, cranking out 70 pages in two weeks. Lee published his love letter to theorems on Amazon last fall.

Lee’s parents told Olshansky that their son has become more assertive — a recurring theme, Griffin said. “Confidence is the number one thing parents tell us about.” Since Eldera’s inception last year, the number of mentors has grown exponentially. Even so, Griffin said the waitlist for mentors typically numbers 200 kids.

Another site, Big and Mini, hosts video interactions between seniors and young adults; about 10,000 active users have joined since 2019, said co-founder Aditi Merchant.

Interestingly, users often bring the benefits of their video interactions to their real-world relationships. Olshansky views Lee as an older version of his grandkids. “Eldera teaches me how to interact with them.” Lee, high on confidence, began instructing his classmates in math. Griffin noted that a group of Eldera mentors in Memphis, who met initially on Eldera, now take walks together in-person to trade ideas for helping each other’s Eldera kids solve problems in their schools and communities.

Connecting in virtual reality

During pandemic isolation, record numbers of people bought devices for virtual and augmented reality. Such gadgets can convince you that you’re hanging out with friends, even if they’re in another hemisphere. Lifelike simulations from miles away could be especially useful for meaningful interactions between people of different generations, since they’re often geographically segregated.

VR’s benefits require further study, but users report less social isolation and depression, according to MIT research. The immersive, 3-D experience is more compelling than FaceTime or Zoom. “It’s like the difference between a phone call and video call,” said Rick Robinson, Vice President of AARP’s Innovation Labs.

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Dana Pierce, a 56-year-old government employee in Indiana, got a VR headset in May, thinking she’d enjoy it more than a new laptop. After many virtual group tours of exotic destinations, she has no regrets. Her adventures occur on Alcove, an app made by Robinson’s Innovation Labs. He co-created it with VR-company Rendever and sought input from people over age 50 to tailor it to their interests. “I’m an introvert,” said Pierce. “I’ve been more socially active since getting my headset than I am in real life.”

Tagging along with her to places like Paris are avatars representing real people around the world. She’s gotten to know VR users in their 70s, 80s and 90s, as well as younger people and some her own age. One is a new friend she plays chess with in relaxing, nature settings. Another is her oldest son. He lives 90 minutes away but, earlier this year, Pierce welcomed him and his girlfriend to her virtual house on Alcove. They chatted in the living room decorated with family photos uploaded by Pierce. Then they went VR-fishing — because why not — until 2 a.m.

“When VR is designed right, the medium disappears,” said Jeremy Bailenson, a communications professor who directs Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. He’s teaching a class of 175 students entirely in VR. After months of covid isolation, the first time the class met, “there was a big catharsis. It really feels like you’re in a big crowd.” Like-minded people meet in VR for events such as comedy shows and creative writing meetups, while the Swedish pop group ABBA will perform as digital versions of themselves (“ABBA-tars”) during a virtual concert tour next year.

Karen Fingerman, a psychologist and director of the Texas Aging and Longevity Center at the University of Texas-Austin, supports the idea of VR for social connection, though she added that some people need it more than others. Hospitals and assisted-living facilities are using products such as Penumbra’s REAL I-Series and MyndVR to bring VR excursions to isolated patients and seniors. “If you’re in a bed or facility, this gives you something to talk about,” said Gita Barry, Penumbra’s executive vice president.

Pierce uses it on most days. She may see another adult son, who lives with her, less often as a result. But VR helps her manage real-world stressors, more than escaping them. After a long workday, she visits her back porch on Alcove, which overlooks a pond. “It’s my little retreat,” she said. “VR improves my mood. It’s added a lot to my life.”

Some seniors are using more than one technology. Olshansky and Lee discuss strategy while playing Internet chess. And Olshansky recently began using VR. He sees his sister, who lives far away, in a virtual beach house. “It’d be a great way to interact with Hyunseung,” he said. “I should get him a headset.”

Matt Fuchs lives in Silver Spring, Md., and writes about health and technology. He is working on a book about social innovators. Follow him on Twitter.