Tackling Loneliness and Social Isolation in Older Adults
Alive Memoir is a voice-only social interaction platform designed for the elderly in the shape of a tangible planter. It enables the elderly to share and perceive experiences and stories from people around the world. These stories are expected to range from their daily experiences or some bundled memories of different emotions from their past, things they cherish, love, or hate.
Social Isolation and Loneliness are profound yet underappreciated public health risks that affect a significant portion of the older adult population. The concepts of loneliness and social isolation can be dated back to the first known publication Über die Einsamkeit, which was later popularized in the late 1950s after Fromm Reichmann published his article “Loneliness”. In 1981, Perlman and Peplau defined loneliness as the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some critical way, either quantitatively or qualitatively, while De Jong Gierveld in 1987 formulated it as follows:
“Loneliness is a situation experienced by the individual as one there is an unpleasant or inadmissible lack of (quality of) certain relationships. This includes situations in which the number of existing relationships is smaller than is considered desirable or admissible, as well as situations where the intimacy one wishes for has not been realized.”
Through this thesis research study, we interviewed a group of people, including older adults who were lonely or socially isolated or both, staff members at old-age care homes, and family members of older adults described above. Interviews conducted revealed a few similarities in their natural behavior. For example, they share their memories when they were socially active and had someone to share their thoughts with, either their spouses, friends, or families. During animal-assisted therapy, adults also tend to talk with animals about their lives, initiating a social connection.
Alive Memoir explores the intersection between aging, loneliness and how design can play a more significant role in alleviating it. This thesis explores how storytelling can play a substantial part in this design exploration to narrow it further down. Alive Memoir is designed to be an initial seed to connect two lonely or socially isolated strangers of similar interests or experiences.
Alive Memoir aims to have an easy-to-navigate, and tangible user interface for the audience it is catering to. It allows its users to play, record, or respond to stories by other people. It is also intended to serve as a virtual gather-around place for the elderly to connect with people.
Alive Memoir is a physical system designed for its users to share and perceive stories. The major components that run the system are
- Physical Device — The physical device serves as a frontend to the story sharing platform and consists of tactile tiles, microphones, speakers that input and output the stories from and to the user.
- Web Server — The web server acts as a vital component of the system. All primary functions, such as storing recorded stories, recommending new stories, managing story replies, etc., are handled by the custom web server.
- Stories — The key part of the system is user stories that enable sharing and connecting interaction between people.
Aesthetic Look and Feel
Alive Memoir is designed to be a planter-shaped device that allows its users to communicate with the world through the medium of storytelling. The planter is designed to look organic, hence the pentagonal shape. A significant inspiration is drawn from the crystal ball (fortune-telling ball), where the fortune-teller gets to know about some other person.
The planter embeds a living plant that serves two essential functions
- It acts as a metaphor for people gathering around the banyan tree and sharing their day and stories.
- It acts as the face of the remote voice projected out from the device.
- It supports a user-friendly approach by instilling the familiar, alive household plant into the tangible interface.
An ideal plant choice is a zen plant since they serve both aesthetic purposes and functional purposes. Since they require less water and are less prone to dry up and die, they are unlike other plants.
The planter also consists of tactile tiles. The choice of tactile tiles is preferred over touch tiles. The initial user interviews and testing indicate that older adults are more comfortable with tactile user interfaces over touch interfaces.
Alive Memoir is powered by a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ as it houses a Cortex-A53 processor with 1 GB RAM in a small form factor to fit in the artifact’s base and can process multiple threads simultaneously. Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ also features a 40-pin GPIO and WiFi capabilities that make it an ideal choice for the system’s brains. Adafruit’s Voice Bonnet shield is considered to handle audio operations since it offers stereo microphones and a 2W audio output on each channel.
The control electronics are fitted in a custom-designed pentagon-shaped housing to complement the planter design. The housing includes an inward indented design on top to house LEDs that will eventually light up the pebbles placed in the base. SK6812 RGBW LEDs are used to illuminate the pebbles since they offer the daisy-chaining capability and can be controlled individually with a 1-wire control protocol.
Each tile of the planter is a custom design printed circuit board, that embeds 25 WS2812B LEDs for illuminating the tiles and a low-profile Cherry MX switch topped with a custom-designed keycap in the shape of the pentagon tile. The Cherry MX switches used are blue switches that produce a good amount of click sound, which adds to the artifact’s tactility and improves the overall user experience by looping in a feedback mechanism on button click.
An additional Arduino Nano, a development board based on the popular ATMega328 microcontroller, is placed as a bridge between the Raspberry Pi and Tiles to handle the process more efficiently and offload power requirements from Raspberry Pi’s GPIOs. Arduino Nano communicates with Raspberry Pi using UART Protocol at a baud rate of 9600. The whole system is powered by a 5V 5A switching mode power supply.
Software Development plays a vital role in bringing Alive Memoir to life. The Software implementation is divided into two major sections.
The backend for the system is hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS), which essentially is the system’s backbone. DynamoDB handles the database while the storage service is dealt with via S3 Storage Service offered by AWS. Information and operations handling is hosted using Lambda functions that are triggered by the tile presses on the artifact.
The system logs each click and performs a custom action based on the action performed by the user. With each user action, the recommendation system is updated to user choices, something similar to the recommendation system adopted by the Spotify streaming service. Each user recorded story or message is stored in a .wav file format since it offers the best streaming audio quality compared to others file formats.
The second segment is the frontend implementation of the software, which bridges the backend and hardware. The frontend implementation is split into two segments. The first segment corresponds to Raspberry Pi scripting, while the second corresponds to the firmware development for Arduino Nano that handles the low-level control for electronics and is also responsible for intelligent power distribution across tiles.
Read more documentation at Alive Memoir’s GitHub Page
Alive Memoir is designed to be used by older adults from age groups 60 and above. The interactions are intended to be simplified and easy to navigate to enable a better user experience. For the scope of this thesis, a user test was conducted consisting of two users who were strangers to each other. Each user testee was recruited and given an artifact each to test with for two weeks. The artifact was placed on the bedside table by the first user, and while placed by the second user on the second user’s living room table.
Before the user testing phase was initiated, each user was given a brief artifact and a basic tutorial on usage. This was planned to be an illustrative instruction manual but was modified to in-person instructions for the scheduled testing phase with the first two users. Users were given a walkthrough, and at the end of it were asked to listen to a prompt generated by the artifact and were required to respond before proceeding with the use of the artifact.
During the two-week duration of user testing, the initial interactive conversation took place after three days the test began. Since the device logged each button press, it revealed that users wanted to listen to more stories recorded by the users. The initial conversation started on a user’s story about his immigration adventures to Germany, the USA, and many more in his youth. This sparked the interest of the second user, where she narrated a similar experience that she and her husband had in the early 1980s when they moved to the states and faced issues. This conversation grew and initiated a common connector between the users. The users extended this conversation further to how their initial days and their struggles were at the time as immigrants. Interestingly, none of the users yet know each other yet nor did they ask about personal details of one another.
Another exciting conversation that emerged through the initial user testing was about their memories and experiences in their early marriage years and the places they traveled with their respective spouses. The conversations had a joyful tone and an untold emotion as if they were reliving their past memories as they narrated.
The two weeks of user testing was indeed an enriching experience as it does shine a ray of light in the direction of the hypothesis of this thesis, and with more extended and more qualitative testing with multiple users may reveal many exciting and untold stories and possibly having a connection, In other words, this can be compared to having an audio pen friend. An insightful observation that emerged from user testing was spiking in usage patterns, i.e., users intended to use the artifact for a few days in continuation while it was kept dormant the rest of the days.
Discussion and Future Work
In the course of this thesis, Alive Memoir is presented as a story-sharing platform designed for the elderly in the shape of a planter that enables them to enjoy a social life in a new way. Its priority is to connect socially isolated or lonely older adults and possibly extend that connection beyond stories.
Another angle I want to explore through Alive Memoir is inter-generational storytelling which can be preserved for ages to come and have future generations know their great grandparents through their voice and life experiences, a form of intergenerational storytelling. This can also become an archive of stories by locals, which can be preserved for generations to come. Alive Memoir can also be extended and repurposed for health risks that require a companion(s) for the healing process to be fully effective.