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Government can make better use of tech to tackle loneliness

Report produced by Vodafone urges the government to exploit the potential of technology to alleviate loneliness among older people

Technology in the home has an important role to play in alleviating loneliness in the over-50s by keeping them connected to family and friends, but significant numbers of older people still lack confidence in using technology and accessing the internet, according to a report compiled by mobile operator Vodafone.

The report, Harnessing technology to tackle loneliness, was launched at the House of Commons on 19 March with support from health secretary Matt Hancock and the government’s dedicated loneliness minister, Mims Davies.

“Loneliness doesn’t just have an economic cost – it has a profound human cost too, and can be hugely damaging to our health and happiness. It affects people of all ages and backgrounds and is something any of us or our loved ones could experience during our lifetimes,” said Hancock.

The report outlines how technology can be deployed to tackle social isolation among older people. Around 1.5 million over-50s are said to suffer with chronic loneliness, which costs the public purse over £1bn every year. Lonely people are much more likely to use their GP services and rely more heavily on social care, so the report calls on the government to consider a number of policy changes to support more social interaction and independence.

Vodafone urged the government to deploy technology alongside traditional community services to facilitate more interaction, and said that learning how to use it effectively could reduce loneliness and promote more active lifestyles, helping people remain independent in their communities, maintain their real-world social circles and build new ones.

Its recommendations include digital prescribing, enabling the NHS to prescribe technology such as wearables and monitoring systems; giving more financial support to enable local authorities to fund technology in the home that can maintain a person’s independence; and, most importantly, developing more tools to increase people’s knowledge, understanding and confidence in technology.

“The cost of loneliness to the individual, their friends and the economy is vast. This cost is financial, emotional and physical. It requires a comprehensive response from government, charities, the health system and businesses. With an increasingly ageing population, we have to act quickly and work together to help solve the problem of loneliness,” said Nick Jeffery, Vodafone UK CEO.

“Our report shows how technology and innovation, such as smart devices, as well as teaching tech skills can play an important role in reducing loneliness and enabling people to live independently for longer.”

“We launched our first ever loneliness strategy last year, and through our Ageing Society Grand Challenge we want to harness innovation to tackle loneliness and support healthy ageing. New technologies and services that can help people stay connected and independent will play an important role in this,” Hancock said.

“We are also investing in social prescribing schemes through the NHS Long Term Plan to see healthcare professionals playing a vital role in signposting people to local services and connecting them back to their communities,” he added.

Vodafone is launching a national programme of free technology masterclasses – 20 of which have been scheduled for 2019 – that will help older people gain confidence in areas such as setting up smartphones, using social media, and using wearables and connected home technology.

The report also highlights that technology could be used alongside more traditional community services to facilitate social interaction, and that learning how to use it more fully can reduce loneliness and promote an active lifestyle.

This can help older people remain independent in their homes and communities and increase confidence and the likelihood of positive interactions. It can also help to maintain and build networks and contacts, with technology used as a way of keeping in touch with friends and family and accessing new communities and groups.

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