May 31, 2013

Combating loneliness in old age: A a virtual friendship coach for elderly persons

Loneliness often comes with old age. Making new contacts and cultivating old friendships is not always easy for many elderly persons. At the same time, many elderly persons are increasingly losing their shyness of computers. Scientists at Graz University of Technology together with international partners have developed concepts for computer applications to reduce loneliness in old age. The "Virtual Coach Reaches Out To Me" programme, in short – V2me, is meant to help the 65+ generation to find new friends, become more socially active, and stay mobile and mentally fit. In initial tests in homes for the elderly, a draft version of the interactive friendship coach enjoyed great popularity. The final evaluation phase of the prototype will commence in May with a broad user study.

Our population is becoming increasingly older – and in old age, often more lonely. A person's social environment shrinks on retirement and through deaths of acquaintances. "The aim of V2me is to reduce loneliness in old age, and thus help older persons find new companions and more joy of life. Of course, a computer programme can't replace people but it can help them to make contact with others", explains Sven Havemann of the Institute of Computer Graphics and Knowledge Visualisation at Graz University of Technology, whose team developed V2me together with nine international partners. The software makes use of a virtual coach in the form of an animated 3D figure which is a direct contact person for the user. "The coach motivates the user to become socially active, connect with other people and go out and mix. The aim is to make sustainable friendships", says Havemann.