The Importance of Human Connections, Healthcare & the Role Technology plays

"A relationship in which a person or thing is linked or associated with something else. People with whom one has social or professional contact or to whom one is related, especially those with influence and able to offer one help."

Humans, We are hard wired to connect.

Some might say our survival depends on social connections and conversations, and they wouldn't be far off it. At a conference I attended last year researchers found, and there is a mounting pile of evidence growing to support this, "Socially engaged individuals are less likely to decline mentally". You can read more about this here in an article by the Harvard Gazette called Social engagement and Healthy Ageing. More interesting reading here by Ageless Play Australia and how intergenerational play is helping grow a community of respect between generations, care and improving healthcare outcomes of those in aged care homes.

The World Health Organisation also have a clear message on healthy ageing, including social inclusion and dementia here. And another resource which I believe is incredibly powerful and relevant must be viewed here. This was found by the meaningful ageing Australia website, the see me, know me organisation. The see me know me organisation is highlighting the importance, the value and the depth of individuality of our older Australians.

We are taught to connect and we yearn to connect. Our connections evolve and develop over time. If we are actively engaged in conversations, many parts of our brain are working to listen, remember what has been said, think about what has been said, interpret, analyse, comprehend and then answer the question.

We feel fulfilled when we connect because that's how humans are designed to work, we respond emotionally, then rationally. Humans spend their lives connecting. We connect verbally and non-verbally, emotionally and physically, and now we are learning to connect virtually, and we are starting to learn the impact of virtually connecting.

The benefits of these connections include companionship, communication, self worth, engagement and a sense of belonging and contribution, to name a few social-emotional reasons. Not only is this beneficial for personal relationships, it is the same for friendships, work and any two-way communication or exchange.

Hugh Mackay, an Australian social researcher, recently gave the Order of Australia (OA) address, I recommend you watch/listen to it here. The take home message is that Australian's need to improve and build better neighbourhood communities and connections, why? We are facing a time of crisis when it comes to compassion, kindness and respect. Hugh states that:

"social isolation is now emerging as a greater potential threat to public health than obesity is."

" isolation directly affects health more generally, by causing changes in the body such as inflammation, cognitive decline, hypertension and poor immune functioning. Socially isolated people are also more likely to have sleep disturbances, to smoke, and to make less use of health-care services. And they are more likely to be exposed to the health risks arising from over-reliance on information technology."

The impact of digital connections

The evolution of communication modalities incorporating digital tools spans across numerous platforms. Social media, emails, text messages, messaging applications and professional network platforms plus voice technologies to name a few! We are living in an era where the modality of communication is evolving to change how, where and when we communicate. It is also effecting the social-emotional development of how we develop and connect. More young adults report they feel socially isolated and lonely; "Loneliness tends to be more common in young adults, males, those living alone and those with children, either singly or in a couple (Baker 2012)."

I often wonder, are we addicted to the notifications or likes we obtain? How is it these companies such as Facebook and twitter have captured our attention, and sometime mindlessly so?

Digital communication has opened pandoras box. With all the positives that come with digital communications including timely communication, timely responses, ease to respond, where to respond and online social connections, the implications of these digital communications can be far and long reaching. Privacy concerns, scams, identity theft, digital interception, online bullying and imposter posing to name a few, have long lasting effects on individual mental health and psychology.

Does the good outweigh the bad?

It's certainly one to think about for every individual. In particular, how does technology, your healthcare and connections all work together? There isn't a one size fits all answer, however there are some key factors that come from this ensuring you analyse the opportunity costs associated with it.

By incorporating new technologies to suit individual needs, we are increasing accessibility and inclusivity. I was recently at a conference in Alice Springs where I was fortunate enough to listen to some incredible speakers which left a strong impact on the way I think about my professional skill set and the bigger picture.

Bigger picture: technologies will continue to evolve at rapid paces and it is up to each of us to choose to access these technologies to help enhance our quality of life and connections, in a safe and responsible way. Connections and safety being the key words here.

Technologies form one part of the solution, however it is not the absolute solution. Technologies can certainly add value to individual healthcare needs and communications. Technologies can enable connections and as long as we are aware of technological limitations, we can strive to incorporate real life conversations and meaningful relationships.

Anecdotally, I am seeing more and more socially withdrawn clients in clinic and online. The partner is usually one of the first to indicate a change in behaviours of the one effected by hearing loss.

Technologies are not a substitute for connections, however when utilised well can be a facilitator or instigator for connections and social inclusion.

The reality of technologies and hearing healthcare

The impact of hearing technologies and hearing loss can not be discounted or ignored. As an audiologist I respect that this is one of the only health professions that often incorporates technology as an aid or tool to help individuals with their specific needs. Hearing aids are a tool to help with ones hearing loss, they are not a quick fix solution to hearing loss and that's because the bigger picture of hearing loss goes beyond one ears.

We need to understand how the brain makes sense of this information we hear with from our ears. Remember, it's your ears that hear (pick up the signal) and your brain that listens (comprehends and executive functions are enabled here) and makes sense of the information it receives.

Think of it like a network of train tracks in your brain. If the signal (the train) coming from the ears isn't sent through clearly (there is damage in your wheels) the processing (along the train tracks) is likely to fall short or not sound as clear or smooth. As the brain isn't getting properly used, auditory deprivation occurs (it gets rusty over time, the tracks weaken and slowly become inefficient). When there is hearing loss, support, counselling and technology can help bridge this gap.

Social isolation and loneliness are emotional and psychological stages that can effect us at any stage during our lives. Social isolation is the objective physical separation from other people (living alone), while loneliness is the subjective distressed feeling of being alone or separated. It's possible to feel lonely while among other people, and you can be alone yet not feel lonely (National Institute on Ageing, 2019).

These are not by-products of getting older, nor is the expectation or trajectory of getting older to end up in an aged care facility or nursing home.

Whilst there are good tools available to help bridge hearing loss, social-emotional wellbeing and support from healthcare professionals and the community, the biggest question to ask yourself is "how do you envision healthy ageing across your lifespan?"

Hears 2 ears, Cheers

Kat Penno

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