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Social isolation and loneliness 'putting seniors' health and wellbeing at risk'

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

With Grandparents Day on 3 October in New Zealand, the frequency and restrictions of lockdowns due to Covid-19 has seen the pandemic be dubbed as ‘the loneliness epidemic’ - especially for seniors who are feeling more disconnected and isolated than ever before but are often too embarrassed or physically unable to do much about it.

According to research conducted by the University of Auckland in partnership with Age Concern, approximately 10 percent of people over the age of 65 in Aotearoa New Zealand are lonely all or most of the time, and this rises to 50 percent amongst those aged over 80. In the most serious cases, one in five frail adults is ‘chronically lonely’ with almost a quarter of these people more likely at risk of premature death. Previous research has equated the reduction in life span as a result of severe loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day while loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.

For one Matamata family, finding appropriate technology to keep in touch became vital. Lois Caldwell had been happily using an iPad for years, but as she reached her 90’s with family throughout the country and overseas all wanting to stay in touch, she was less able to keep up with all the changes in technology.

Caldwell’s daughter, Julie Caldwell was frustrated with the lack of easy-to-use tech in the market that provided the simplicity they were looking for. So together with Caldwell’s colleague Julie Blackwell, they took their inspiration from Lois and began a project more than three years in the making to produce Kitcal, a simple and secure tablet specifically designed for seniors.

Caldwell and Blackwell say they applaud the attention on researching how the digital divide has been affecting seniors. They are exasperated at the slow reaction from corporates whose customers are affected. "The need for practical action is urgent", they say, "as our most at-risk-seniors are also the least able to advocate for themselves. Those who are at the forefront of advocacy, such as Age Concern, Grey Power, Senior Net and Digital Seniors, are doing all they can but the "profit before people" business focus of many corporates is frustrating. They seem to give lip service to digital inclusion but so far that hasn’t translated to anything tangible for our seniors."

"We hope our Kitcal tablets will help create a more digitally inclusive Aotearoa. Kitcal’s mission is to reconnect seniors with their families and other support structures, so that they are less lonely and more confident about their remaining years," says Julie Caldwell, co-founder of Kitcal. "It’s vital that our seniors keep in touch with their whānau and friends in this pandemic - especially during a lockdown. Closing the digital divide is an important step towards reducing the physical and mental toll of social isolation and loneliness."

For seniors living independently, Kitcal can provide the confidence to stay in their own homes with a way to keep in touch with their families. For those already in care, when family contact often decreases as life management is taken over by the care provider, Kitcal can give back the opportunity to independently reconnect with their own families.

The tablet is designed for those who find current technology difficult or who have little or no tech skills. They can now keep in touch without worrying about email scams or fraudulent websites.

Kitcal co-founder Julie Blackwell adds that family and friends can download the free Kitcal Companion app on their own smartphone to communicate with the Kitcal tablet, "Companions are encouraged to keep in touch with their seniors via the Kitcal tablet as frequently as they do with the rest of the family to help them stay in the loop with day-to-day news, which strengthens and maintains close relationships."

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