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Dhruv Sharma: Mitigating Later Life Loneliness Through Radical Innovation & Digital Technologies

Dhruv Sharma facilitating a CoDesign workshop at NICA

Dhruv Sharma is a Senior Innovation Associate at Newcastle University's National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA), an initiative that brings together academics and businesses to share knowledge relevant to developing innovative products and services for older adults. Dhruv is currently researching the role of radical innovation and digital technologies in mitigating later life loneliness and social isolation as part of his PhD at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training, Lancaster University. We talk to him about his two strands of work in the ageing space, and how they can contribute to solutions for important later life issues in society.

What is your research into later life and digital technology looking at, and why?

My research into later life is specifically looking at loneliness experienced by older adults. This is an important socioeconomic issue that is currently being discussed on various public and private platforms – both nationally, as well as globally.

Being interested in pragmatic knowledge, I wanted to see what was actually being done to address this problem and when I started examining the non-medical or non-pharmacological loneliness interventions, I realised that there was an under-utilisation of digital technologies in the solution space.

There was also an under-representation of radical innovation - which in a nutshell means bringing in new perspectives and novel ways of ‘thinking and doing things’ rather than solely relying on convention.

I’m not saying that the use of digital technologies is the silver bullet solution, but perhaps we need to do a bit more experimentation in this area to figure out its possibilities and the potential weaknesses.

When we talk about digital technologies, what do we mean?

Essentially, everything that is connected to the digital world and the internet in particular. Digital technologies have gone past the point of being luxuries, they have become part and parcel of our daily lives and livelihoods, at least in the developed world. So, it baffles me why the potential is not being capitalised on.

An example of the power of digital technologies can be found in India – where there was a massive boom in the telecommunications sector around 2005-2007.

The rural farming sector had a lack of hard infrastructure, a lack of roads, school, hospitals etc., and access to information even. What the telecom sector and digital technologies did in that context was that they provided a soft infrastructure as an alternative for people to overcome those challenges.

So, I believe strongly that there are some real strengths that digital technologies possess that are not being fully used – and certainly not in the role of mitigating loneliness and isolation in later life.

"Digital technologies allow you to find ways of extending your reach, rather than being restricted to your local context."

Are perception of technology and personal ability a barrier to use – and if so, how do you get past that?

It definitely is a barrier to some extent, and that needs to be lowered. Designers can change the interaction through the design element, but they can also help facilitate this interaction by incrementally helping someone who is not comfortable using these technologies to get familiar with them.

I was working with in a group intervention in Manchester, for example - and paired older people who experienced loneliness with students in India who wanted to practice their English speaking skills - which was a win-win situation.

I remember one particular gentleman insisted that technology wasn’t for him, he didn’t get it, and he didn’t need it - and have participated in a few of those sessions, he came up to me and asked me what an iPad could do and where he could get one. Demonstrating the potential of digital itself is quite powerful, and a little goes a long way.

"Demonstrating the potential of digital technology is quite powerful, and a little goes a long way."

What is the biggest block around technology for older people?

If you’ve lived your life a certain way for 55-60 years and then someone tells you there’s a new thing you can use – well, to some extent many of us are just programmed to say no! This resistance to change may be hardwired into our brains.

Also, the way the digital world has evolved too is now quite different to how it was initially. For instance, most of the web design in the early days was supposed to mimic or replicate things from the real, physical world and that’s where things like the yellow exclamation marks inspired by road-signs come from to say something is wrong with your computer.

To me, hashtags and the pins on online maps that have evolved over the years now don’t look anything like real world things - there’s a different kind of visual language evolving there.

If you want someone to interact with a completely alien language like that it is challenging. A certain camp of scientific thought says that we have two types of memory - fluid and crystallised memory.

Fluid memory allows you to grapple with situations, make decisions and change when necessary and when we’re younger that is much easier for the brain to do.

But as we grow older memory gets crystallised into set patterns and ways through which you access your cranial capacities – which links in with the resistance to change.

Things are changing though - the current batch of people who are past retirement age did not grow up with these online experiences, but in the coming couple of decades or so the older demographic will be more familiar with digital technologies in many ways.

There will always be discoveries and evolutions – regarding technology, as well as a society in general to keep up with, but my research focuses on the now.

What inspires me most is a quote from Herbert Simon, which says that good design allows you to move from the existing to the preferred. Unless you study the existing, you can’t move to the preferred, because you don’t know what that is.

Further information

Click here to keep up to date with Newcastle University’s latest news.

Click here to view the video demonstrating how researchers and designers are working with members of the public to design the multi-purpose, multi-generational kitchen of the future.

If you are concerned that your loved one is suffering from loneliness, speak with one of Elder’s experts about the companionship that comes with private live-in care.

What kind of technological interventions could be useful in mitigating older age loneliness?

When I say interventions, I mean anything that is not medical, such as antidepressants etc. – rather, social services aimed at reducing, managing and mitigating loneliness.

There are loads of examples already that aren’t digital – such as befriending services, CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) or services like meet and greet sessions and lunch clubs.

We’ve been doing these things for decades - and they’re still around because they work - however they are very resource intensive, and they haven’t managed to “solve” the problem if you like.

I am very much part of the ‘positive messaging around ageing’ camp which is why I am interested in active ageing. What digital technologies allow you to do is enrich these social contacts, explore more social contacts that were previously unimagined and to move beyond the local.

They allow you to find ways of extending your reach, rather than being restricted to your local context, which is how most current befriending services work.

Dhruv Sharma at his PhD research intervention, helping older adults learn how to interact with video calling software.

You are also researching at the National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA) – what is the aim there?

The NICA has been set up to be a conduit between businesses and academic research around ageing. There is a lot of knowledge in both sectors, and increasingly the older population is being projected as a potential market that is as-yet untapped.

This is partly because there is a bit of a stigma attached to working with or catering to older people and traditionally all the money has been with the young professionals – therefore most of the marketing campaigns have been geared there.

But what is not commonly known is that 80 per cent of the wealth in the UK is actually held by older people, namely those aged 55 or over. It’s therefore surprising that only 10 per cent of the marketing budget of companies is geared towards them.

NICA helps businesses find the academic knowledge they lack - and helps academics commercialise some really great ideas by pairing them up with businesses or relevant people.

What is the perception of later life in the UK and can this help to change it?

In my opinion, it’s quite negative, and our language, for instance, is a good yardstick to measure the perception. Words like seniors, the elderly etc. range from being ambiguous to being somewhat patronising, and the image that is generally sent out is that of being frail, doddery, senile, unsure or even ugly.

Those kinds of perceptions are popular in the media, but that is likely to change, because very soon there will be a very big percentage of the whole world in the later life period.

At the moment, many companies are afraid that if they start being seen as a product or service that is used by older people, then that product may not be used by anyone else. Some businesses are more aware that the potential is there in the older market but they just don’t have the knowledge, and they are wary of getting it wrong.

Similarly, some academics have great ideas about solving ageing-related problems, but they lack the relevant knowledge, experience, or access to networks that would help them commercialise their idea.

NICA is there to help academics, as well as businesses, do it the right way, by thinking about it properly, developing well thought through research proposals and project managing the research for them. We do this by placing older people at the heart of all such activities, very much co-creating these innovative ideas alongside them.

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