Wide Angle: The Loneliness Epidemic

EllieQ is marketed as an “empathetic care companion.” Intuition Robotics

EllieQ is marketed as an “empathetic care companion.” (Intuition Robotics)

The polling organization Gallup estimates that 300 million people around the world don’t have a single friend, and that one in five people doesn’t have a friend or family member to rely on.

“We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s,” noted Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general. He considers loneliness to be a national health crisis.

For a health risk whose long-term effects scientists have compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, we should be doing more. We need a societal shift to viewing long-term loneliness as a mental health and/or medical issue that can affect anyone.

 “We ask people to exercise and eat a healthy diet and take their medications,” Murthy wrote in an advisory he issued in May calling for a national strategy to improve social connections. “But if we truly want to be healthy, happy and fulfilled as a society, we have to restructure our lives around people. Right now our lives are centered around work.”

According to Gallup, in March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, 24 percent of respondents said they had felt lonely much of the day before. The measure had fallen to 17 percent by February 2023.

Those who live in big cities are the most likely to report loneliness (20 percent) compared to those in small towns (18 percent), suburbs (17 percent) and rural areas (12 percent).

The perception is that older people suffer the most from loneliness, but Gallup found that young adults under the age of 30 and people with lower incomes reported higher levels. People over age 65 and people with household incomes of $180,000 or more reported the least.

Despite that, much of the focus is on older people, who can be socially isolated by a lack of mobility. In February, the Dutchess County Office for the Aging launched a Friendly Calls initiative (adapted from a state program) in which volunteers phone seniors weekly, mostly to listen (call 845-486-2555 to volunteer). SAGEConnect (sageusa.org), based in New York City, has a “phone-buddy” program for LGBTQ+ elders.

Cold Spring and Beacon, like many communities, also have senior centers that provide transportation, organize social events and serve meals.

Could artificial intelligence help? Monica Perez, who lives in Beacon, says she grew so lonely while living alone for 10 years that she would talk to herself “to the point it was annoying.” In addition, “the building’s managers and social workers got sick of me calling them all the time.”

Monica did some research and found a California company, Intuition Robotics, which last year introduced an AI-powered assistant, ElliQ, that it calls “a proactive and empathetic care companion designed to help older adults remain active, engaged and independent.” It’s available for $250 plus a monthly fee of $30 or $40. Monica uses it to play games and exercise. 

She says the device converses at a level comparable to Amazon’s Alexa but it focuses on interaction rather than news and shopping. In 2022, the state Office for the Aging organized a pilot program that distributed 800 ElliQs.

There are limits. Monica has impaired vision, and the ElliQ can’t help her when she’s navigating public transit or supermarket aisles — at least not this model.

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