Will more countries appoint a “Minister of Loneliness” following the footsteps of the UK and Japan?
In the United States, loneliness costs the country almost US$7 billion extra in healthcare costs each year. Loneliness is not the same as social isolation. People can be isolated (alone) yet not feel lonely. People can be surrounded by other people, yet still feel lonely. The pandemic has somewhat amplified the challenges of loneliness amongst the elderly, yet at the same time, it has provided the population at large who has had to stay home due to the pandemic, with an opportunity to experience the loneliness and social disconnections felt on a daily basis by many elders.
With falling fertility rates, smaller families and more single people ageing, today’s baby boomers are facing a real scenario of ageing alone without their loved ones around them. Women will outlive men due to feminisation of ageing; children will live apart from their parents due to globalisation; people will age with fewer siblings or no siblings due to smaller families and low fertility rates. The elderly are the most vulnerable to the negative effects of loneliness.
While this is a social concern that needs to be addressed, this also provides an opportunity for the market to be involved in the business of loneliness. Take for example, in Japan, security company, SECOM, provides a once a week check-in subscription based service to support and check in on seniors who are living alone. This not only provides an economic opportunity for the market, but also addresses a pressing social challenge.
Most recently, as a result of the the Covid-19 pandemic and rising suicide rates for the first time in 11 years, Japan’s Prime Minister appointed Tetsushi Sakamoto as the Minister in charge of dealing with problems of isolation and loneliness in February 2021. Sakamoto is also in charge of reversing the declining birth rate. With this additional responsibility, he has now been dubbed the ‘Minister of Loneliness’. Sakamoto points out that loneliness afflicts across different age groups, including children, young people, women and older people.
In the United Kingdom, the first Minister for Loneliness, Tracy Crouch, was appointed in 2018, signifying the importance of this issue. According to a 2017 report from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, more than 9 million people in Britain — around 14 percent of the population — often or always feel lonely – costing UK employers up to $3.5 billion annually, projected by CO-OP. In 2019, the third Minister of Loneliness portfolio came under Baroness Diana Barran — the country’s third Minister of Loneliness in two years.
There are also more entrepreneurs embarking on social enterprise solutions to help seniors to connect and participate in social activities. In Singapore, ASPIRE55 – Asia’s first virtual retirement village opened in 2014 to help create social, health and care communities targeted at assisting middle income baby boomers to age-in-place and increase like-minded social interactions amongst members. In Korea, a social enterprise was established by SK Telecom to manage a service that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor lonely elders. The monitoring is done via voice-enabled “smart” speakers that picks up signs of danger or words that indicate rising states of loneliness or insecurity. The result of the trigger words will lead to a recommendation for a visit by local public health officials. Although bordering on challenges of privacy, the direct result of the pandemic also means that more seniors will benefit from such a remote care service. With artificial intelligence and emerging new technologies, more products and services can help to add on to human interaction versus replacing it. New companion robots with more AI functions will help to address this business opportunity and help to alleviate loneliness.
In Singapore, as reported by the Singapore Management University on 4 March 2021 – A Covid-19 pandemic survey showed that fewer elderly residents were satisfied with life during this period. “Those who lived alone felt more social isolation or loneliness and hence lower levels of well-being. Conversely, those who lived alone, but engaged in more social activities or communicated more frequently with their friends and loved ones digitally felt less alone and enjoyed improved well-being.”