My neighbour Irene gets up every morning and walks down to the local bakery to get a fresh loaf of bread for the day ahead, then she walks down to the newsagent and gets the daily paper. It is something she has done every day for the 20 years I have lived beside her and after her husband Jim died, it is something so incredibly important to her.
Because seeing the baker and the news agent in the morning can sometimes be the only human interaction she has all day. These small touches with people that provide every day services to her, are on some days, the only times she speaks to or sees another person all day. Since her husband Jim died eight years ago, things have changed for Irene.
Jim was 73 when he passed away and neither of the couple had been working since 62. They had moved from their family home in a capital city suburbia to a quiet unit along beautiful coastline so they had lost contact with many of their work friends and sadly, a lot of their other friends had become too ill to drive the four hours to visit Irene in recent years.
This kind of isolated life is becoming increasingly common as we age. But there is something that our own generation will be the first to face, and it will make things even worse for us.
The digital world has changed what we do, how we do things, who we see and the way we think about every day things. For example, our simple and easy to use self-checkouts at supermarkets cut the wait time, you feel more efficient for getting the job done and it is easier to run through the process without small chat.
That is our reality right now, but what happens when we become like Irene and the idle chatter at the supermarket becomes the only time we truly engage with another person? Because our generation isn’t even going to have that option if things keep on going the way they are.
According to The Telegraph, a study conducted in the United Kingdom found some alarming statistics about the interactions of so called elderly people. The growing shift by banks, utility companies, shops and storefronts and government agencies to carry out customer oriented transactions and interactions on the internet instead of in person, will leave the majority of over 70s with little human interaction.
Effectively, the internet is slowly beginning to isolate older people. The study also found that in the UK, the number of seniors feeling “lonely” is set to rise by 40% over the next decade.
Getting online is one part of the process to finding a solution – if people want to have any interaction, internet based communication is a must do for anyone over 60. But therein lies the problem, once they are online how do they find other like minded people and create that 21st century style human connection?
They have to join communities, be ready to participate in discussion and seek out people online they share common interests with. Then, if they aren’t afraid, they will need to be prepared to bridge the gap between online and real, social interaction.
It is scary, and in some ways it is sad, that people like Irene who rely on her locals to feel connected won’t have that option anymore. But we can help them to find other ways. Our generation is the first who will truly have to deal with the isolation that the internet and technology brings, so if we can find a way to bridge the gap and create a pathway for older people to stay connected to other human beings, we are writing history.
Do you know anyone who has suffered from isolation and has turned to the internet for help? Or perhaps, do you know someone like Irene? Or do you sometimes feel isolated from the real world? Share your thoughts on the issue in the comments below…