Can technology replace human empathy?

Her name is Zora. She speaks 19 languages and at 57cm tall fits snugly on your lap. She can play memory games and participate in exercises, read books and sing to you. From Belgium to Brightwater Madeley in Western Australia, the ‘cuddly human-like robot’ is being deployed to combat the growing loneliness and social isolation experienced by elderly people living in aged care facilities the world over.

Although technology can and does improve quality of life for all, can it really provide genuine connection through our innately human attribute of empathy?

With studies increasingly reporting the adverse effects of loneliness for the elderly, and growing ‘virtual’ connectivity of the young, intergenerational learning is man’s oldest and most useful tool. Intergenerational learning is the process whereby knowledge, norms, skills and values are shared between people of different ages through the discussion of shared experiences. Creating purposeful and ongoing exchanges of learning and resources among older and younger generations benefits everyone. Second to using fire, the banking of knowledge and learning from previous generations might even be a big part of human progression!

Bringing the young and old together in aged care through intergenerational programs has shown to bring health benefits and reduce social isolation for the elderly, whilst reducing ageism and increasing empathy in the young. From a broader perspective, such programs create an opportunity for society to challenge ageist stereotypes especially about the contributions of people living with dementia.

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698-07812988 © Masterfile Royalty-Free Model Release: Yes Property Release: No Grandson singing and playing guitar for grandfather at home

With a projected one million people who will be living with a dementia-related illness by 2050 in Australia, empathy, education and understanding will be much needed.

Not unique to Australia, the prevalence of dementia is growing world wide. In 2018, an interesting Italian study by Santini et al looked at Intergenerational programs involving adolescents. Initially the teenagers found the aged care setting to be confrontational and daunting, as captured by a student comment that reflected how many of his peers felt: “The elderly are a burden for young people who cannot find work. . . Italy is a country made of old people, and young people have to pay their pensions. . .” After six months of joint intergenerational activities, students slowly started to change their opinions on older people. “Elderly are often disregarded as they are deemed useless, but those I met are certainly not useless!

At the end of the program, conflict and confusion gave way to friendship, empathy, listening, and mutual understanding: “Friendship between young and older people is possible and is good. We can try to be more understanding towards older people and put ourselves in their shoes. We should not exclude them from society but exploit their experience for better facing life’s problems and thus making them feel useful.”

We’re living in an age where institutions and universities are trialling pilots and programs in order to study and conclude what seems natural and obvious: that the interactions and emotional dependence we have on one another is instrumental to living a life fulfilled, with health and well being the end result for all. Humans needs humans, and in particular, our young and not so young, gain so much from spending time with each other … it’s a simple fact that won’t change no matter how much technology progresses.

Heart and Soul Story currently runs an Intergenerational Connection program ( STEP – Senior and Teens Empathy Program) with students from Youth off the Streets Bowen College and Bupa Aged Care Maroubra. https://heartandsoulstory.com/intergenerational-programs/

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Thank you to Heart and Soul Story’s Dementia Advisor, Diana Collings, for this thought provoking article. You can read more about Diana’s resources to aid people with dementia http://www.speckled.com.au/

References:

Santini, S., Tombolesi, V., Baschiera, B. and Lamura, G. (2018). Intergenerational Programs Involving Adolescents, Institutionalized Elderly, and Older Volunteers: Results from a Pilot Research-Action in Italy. BioMed Research International, 2018, pp.1-14.

Zagoričnik, A., Bylykbashi, A. and Starc, A. (2018). Intergenerational programs as a solution to the social isolation of the elderly. Health of the Elderly, Conference Paper, pp.133-143.

The Conversation. (2019). A new project shows combining childcare and aged care has social and economic benefits. [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/a-new-project-shows-combining-childcare-and-aged-care-has-social-and-economic-benefits-99837

This human-like robot is lending a helping hand in aged care homes – Create News. [online] Create News. Available at: https://www.createdigital.org.au/human-like-robot-aged-care-homes/

The New Humanism: Technology should enhance, not replace, human interactions. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2018/06/11/the-new-humanism-technology-should-enhance-not-replace-human-interactions/

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