SENSORY equipment that enables people to share a hug across cyberspace is in development and may soon become part of everyday life. Nana and grandad will be able to press a button on a special vest and feel a ‘hug’ sent by children and grandchildren via the internet.
Using special software, the vest will receive signals via the internet and interpret the identified emotions expressed within messages, and respond by providing the appropriate physical sensation, such as that hug.
This will be emotionally soothing for older people in Ireland who are alreading interacting via video technology, such as Skype, with their families abroad, says neuroscientist Billy O’Connor, professor and head of teaching and research in physiology at the graduate-entry medical school in UL.
“Skype has been adapted enthusiastically by the elderly, because it’s free and it allows them to maintain contact, some of them with grandchildren they have only met online,” he says.
It’s also a good mental-health activity, because it keeps the family network strong and it gives more meaning to their lives.
It enables them to keep up with the daily activities of their loved ones.
“I actually believe that the government should provide free broadband, with the travel and TV licence, at pension age, because it makes the older person more resilient and mentally healthier,” Mr O’Connor says.
We are dependent on our network of connections — we define ourselves by such connections and, as people age, they can lose those links, through retirement, illness and the loss of partners and friends.
A 2011 report for the Vincent de Paul found that loneliness was the biggest problem for older people in Ireland who live alone (Walsh & Harvey 2011). However, being alone need not be lonely — we can be socially surrounded and still feel lonely.
Research released earlier this year by John Cacioppo, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, found that extreme loneliness increases the chance of premature death by 14%.
It concluded that we should have “intimate connectedness” — someone in our life who affirms who we are; and “collective connectedness” — feeling we are part of a group or collective, beyond our individual existence.
Technology broadens the world into that “connectedness” for the elderly and, in particular, for those who have mobility issues — who can’t get in a car or travel, or who are in special care.
The internet takes advantage of two important features within the human brain — social behaviour elicits pleasure; and vision triggers memories and emotions deep within our unconscious minds, says O’Connor.
However, he warns against elderly people surfing aimlessly because that stresses the brain. Instead, they should focus on one particular subject, because this helps new neurons form.
“Keeping the attention focused on the task at hand is what strengthens the brain — stay with a goal for one hour, such as learning everything about the game of bridge,” he says.
Our brain is ‘plastic’ from birth to death and our five senses drive that development, which is why “you can still learn Chinese at 90,” says the neuroscientist.
Technology currently engages two of the senses — auditory and visual. But soon we will also be communicating online through touch, taste and smell, which will be an even more potent emotional connection with friends and family.
“The more the senses are engaged the more authentic the emotions that can be transmitted,” he says.
Virtual reality will be in common use within the next decade, due to the massive marketing demand from the public, O’Connor says. Donning virtual reality headsets, the elderly will eventually be able to take nostalgic trips, such as revisiting their teenage years, for example, with all its sensory associations.
Or, for those with restricted mobility, they will be able to enter ‘outside’ worlds for a walk in the park or a visit to the sea; it’s simulated, of course, but the “brain believes what it sees”.
And the response, like the cyber hug, will bring a rush of beneficial emotions and a pay-off that also benefits the older person mentally and physically.
Read Prof Billy O’Connor’s blog, www.inside-the-brain.com.