Aging “Socially Rich?”

ageing in place alone

From our fieldwork at Intel over the past decade, it has become clear that there is an epidemic of isolation among older people in our society…This pervasive loneliness is deadly and expensive…

-Eric Dishman

Aging in Place and Isolation

It’s widely known that a rich social life is a health protectant in old age. It is also known that aging can lead to isolation—and Isolation has been found to be lethal. This topic is so essential to successful aging in place that I have modified my motto for Longevity to read:


Adding ” x COMMUNITY” to the equation for Longevity acknowledges the role social support plays in aging well. In fact, when Eric Dishman was with Intel, he noted that social health is so important, that their researchers saw it as a bigger variable in establishing overall health and happiness in old age than money; being “socially rich” trumps being “financially rich.” And that seniors (and boomers now) who have “porous” social boundaries (those open to visits from wide ranges of people) tend to fair better in old age that those with “impermeable” or moat-like social behaviors.

Aging in Place Technologies

Dishman and his team at Intel reported that Independent Living Technologies can help monitor and promote social health for seniors living alone. The Intel team found that caregiver networks and family members of isolated seniors living alone, had no idea, or could even imagine how lonely their seniors could be. People with busy lives don’t realize parents can go entire week or more, without any social contact what so-ever.

Dishman’s team had built an early prototype called “social health support system” (SHSS) using off-the-shelf motion sensors and a small device placed on the phone to measure changes in *social health. They then collect data and use it to develop applications that will enable seniors to stay engaged.

Over months, the SHSS simple technologies give caregivers and families PATTERNS of “social health” that can forecast imminent health declines due to major drop-offs in social behaviors. The idea is to be PROACTIVE and head problems off at the pass, before they develop into serious pathology.

Aging in Community

Communities facilitate aging in place by keeping older adults socially engaged and purpose driven. Intel researchers have espoused that Social Health Technologies will need to do at least four things:

1. Detect changes or declines in social health as an early warning sign of more serious problems such as depression or dementia.

2. Provide memory assistance and confidence to those who are challenged to even use their phone or answer their front door.

3. Connect those who are disenfranchised in the community with those who have the ability, time, and desire to “give back.”

4. Offer new online forums for sharing one’s story, learning new things, or just virtually hanging out with friends or strangers.

-Independence for Life; Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America (2012, University of Texas, Austin, p. 103)

If it’s been awhile, you might want to give that elderly parent a call…


* Margaret Morris, Social Networks as Health Feedback Displays, IEEE Internet Computing 9, no. 5 (2005): 29-37

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