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Aging and loneliness

Expert says technology and research key to unlocking solutions

By Joshua Goudie


It’s one of the most pervasive yet often overlooked challenges faced by older people.

Dr. Barbara Barbosa, a white woman in her late 30s, smiles at the camera in an outdoor location.
Dr. Barbara Barbosa is an expert on technology and aging.
Photo: Submitted

On Thursday, Nov. 2, Dr. Barbara Barbosa Neves will deliver a public presentation on loneliness and social isolation as part of Memorial’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Science’s annual George H. Story Distinguished Lecture Series.

Although people of all ages experience it, Dr. Neves says that older people are especially vulnerable to prolonged periods of loneliness.

“Loneliness isn’t just a fleeting feeling of sadness. It poses a significant threat to the well-being, health and social inclusion of older adults,” said Dr. Neves, who is a senior lecturer at Australia’s Monash University and an internationally recognized expert on the subject.

Understand and respond

According to her award-winning research, regardless of factors such as gender, race and even genetics, loneliness increases the risk of dementia by 40 per cent.

The World Health Organization concurs, indicating that loneliness and social isolation are significant risk factors for mental health conditions in later life.

“The effects of loneliness have serious socio-economic implications for our communities, making our societies less healthy and inclusive,” said Dr. Neves.

Given that new digital technologies are being heralded as solutions to health-care challenges across the country, Dr. Neves’s research is timely.

By presenting evidence from her testing on artificial intelligence, virtual reality and robotics, she aims to show how technology can help us better understand and respond to loneliness in later life.

Her work has already been used to improve technology design for older people and inform care practices and policy in Canada, Portugal and Australia.

Demographic challenges

The success of technology-based initiatives for older people often depends on social elements,” said Dr. Neves. “Issues like poor infrastructure, cost and low digital skills also hold back technology adoption as people age in remote and isolated communities.”

A white woman in her late 40s smiles while sitting in front of an out of focus map of N.L.
Dr. Gail Wideman
Photo: Submitted

Dr. Gail Wideman, associate professor at Memorial’s School of Social Work, agrees.

“If you are talking about barriers to technical medical advances,” said Dr. Wideman, “the most obvious is the need for the infrastructure to support remote delivery. But an even more fundamental issue is the tendency to undervalue and therefore underserve rural communities.”

Newfoundland and Labrador has one of the highest proportions of older adults in Canada.

The province also faces significant geographical dispersion, with a large portion of the population residing away from services.

“The availability of and access to the health-care system is essential in keeping rural communities as viable places, not just to age and die, but to live and thrive,” said Dr. Wideman.

Related work

Memorial is already taking steps to try and address health and social concerns associated with aging in rural areas.

This week, the university opened two Faculty of Nursing learning sites in Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor, with a third site operating out of Labrador Campus in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

The university is also home to the Aging Research Centre N.L. Based at Corner Brook’s Grenfell Campus with a satellite office in St. John’s, the centre is the result of a 2018 pilot research centre.

By building relationships with researchers, encouraging students to pursue aging-related research and offering grants and fellowships to support their work, the Aging Research Centre aims to create a provincial network of researchers studying health care and social challenges associated with an aging population.

“With a rich depth and breadth of research expertise related to health, aging and technology, Memorial is pleased to lead and facilitate transformative research projects and collaborations that address issues facing our world,” said Dr. Tana Allen, vice-president (research) at Memorial University.

This approach is aligned with Dr. Neves’s research findings, she says.

“To connect such communities effectively and ensure lasting impact, these initiatives need to fit into existing resources and contexts, be flexible and avoid a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The George H. Story Distinguished lecture series takes place on Thursday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. Follow the link for more details.

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