Fighting loneliness one click at a time
9 April 2019 at 5:30 pm
Loneliness and isolation in seniors is a growing problem around the world, with research showing it can lead to early death, heart conditions and stroke. But Melbourne tech company Lumin has created a device that could be a solution to the problem, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
At first glance, the Lumin tablet just looks like a large iPad.
But switch it on, and you’ll find everything about it is designed to make it easy for tech-shy seniors to communicate with the outside world, as well as providing a chance for safe independent living.
Paul Wilson, Lumin CEO, tells Pro Bono News making such an accessible product meant starting from scratch.
They had to build a device three times the size of a normal iPad, create an invisible operating system that didn’t require manual updating or passwords, a touch screen suitable for thinner skin, and large, simple icons.
“It was about trying to make the technology as accessible and friendly as possible, and empowering [seniors] to overcome the stigma of finding technology hard to use,” Wilson says.
The main features of the device include making phone calls, sending messages, setting reminders to take medication, and being able to send out a “supporters alert”, which notifies emergency contacts if something goes wrong.
Family, friends, and carers can also use the Lumin app to add reminders, photos and meaningful events in a shared calendar.
The business is out to make a profit (the Lumin costs $150 to set up, and around $75 a month to run following that), but is driven by a purpose to address the increasing levels of isolation and loneliness experienced by older generations.
“Isolation is a real problem not just because it makes life harder, but it’s the trigger for a 27 per cent increase in early mortality, 30 per cent increase in heart disease, and a 31 per cent increase in stroke,” Wilson says.
“These are terrifying statistics, and very real, physical manifestations as a result of being lonely.”
Like many on his team, Wilson has an older parent, which has helped him understand the need for the product on a more personal level.
“I would say we’ve got a very close family… my dad is still quite socially active, and has a new partner, but when I asked him if he ever felt isolated or lonely, I expected the answer to be no,” Wilson says.
“Instead, he told me that while he wasn’t trying to make me feel bad, of course he did at times, because he’d often spend four nights a week with the TV as company.
“I was shocked, because I’m so busy, as everyone is, running around with kids, and trying to contribute, and I give dad all the time I have but I guess that’s the time I have, not the time he has.”
While he knows he can’t change people’s busy lives, the Lumin does provide a simple way for older people to reach out to their families and keep in contact while still living independently.
And in some cases Wilson explains, it has meant reconnecting with their family altogether.
“We’ve got clients with families interstate and overseas, that had lost contact and now they’re able to see their kids and grandkids because of the video function,” he says.
Another use of the device is to assist unpaid carers with the burden and pressures the role carries with it.
Growing up, Wilson witnessed his father carry much of the pressure of looking after his unwell mother, often without support.
“I wasn’t even aware of what my dad was shouldering with my mum, and just how strong he was through the whole process,” he reflects.
For Lumin customer, Anne, the primary carer for her partner Edie, who has early onset dementia, the device has given both of them a taste of independence.
“Anne was finding it really hard to be the primary carer, but after we set the Lumin up, she told us it was literally like having another carer in the house,” Wilson explains.
“For the first time, she could go down to the local shops, or run errands, knowing that if Edie was in trouble, she could contact her.”
Wilson says the photo album feature, which their families contributed to, meant they could take a trip down memory lane whenever they liked.
“Anne told me it provided the ability for them to sit down and look through nostalgic memories, which was really positive for her dementia,” he says.
The device can also be used by home care providers to communicate with clients between visits and even deliver care plans and therapies remotely, in a bid to keep older people in their homes, living independently for longer.
Wilson says it is also particularly useful for older people living in regional and rural areas with limited access to services.
“We’re not trying to replace face-to-face contact, but what it means is in between visits, they can do more to keep them connected,” he explains.
Residential aged care homes can also use the device. It enables managers to create social events on shared calendars, and encourage communication between residents via messaging platforms.
Wilson says it would be arrogant to assume technology is going to stop older people from feeling lonely and isolated, but he believes it has the potential to give them a pathway back into being a part of society.
“Some of these people have been forgotten, not usually because anyone means for that to happen, but they have become a by-product of a busy life,” he says
“I want to think about how we can access the intellectual capital of these people, who have a life-time of experience, but are just sitting in their homes or aged care centres.”
For now, the main aim for Lumin is to be better recognised as a product, and like all tech products, continuously evolve to improve how it delivers its services, while still upholding and driving its purpose.
“The critical thing for us is to get recognised and known so when our clients, who are often under pressure with ageing or sick parents, know we are out there,” he says.
“We’re also very careful to take clients on who are going to benefit from the product, and every cent the business makes is invested back into improving the quality of the product, and that’s the driver for the business.”