Can An iPad Heal Loneliness? Barcelona Wants Its Senior Citizens To Give It A Try

The city is distributing tablets with apps that will connect senior citizens to the outside world.

Like many cities, Barcelona has a growing elderly population that is increasingly isolated. About a quarter of its senior citizens live alone, many going through the day without ever having the meaningful interactions that are vital for maintaining health and wellbeing.


In response, the city is trying a new tack: “age networks” based around simple technology. By giving the elderly access to tablets, apps, and Internet connections, it hopes to stitch together family, friends, and professional caregivers and help the elderly feel a little less lonely.

“We have some programs to counteract loneliness already, but we are only 600 or 700 people and the reality is that there many more people than that,” says Ramon Sanahuja, director of Barcelona’s social innovation unit. “There are 20,000 or 40,000 people. What we are trying is to foster these trust circles to see if this has an effect on people’s loneliness.”

Barcelona submitted the idea, called Vincles, to last year’s Mayors Challenge organized by Bloomberg Philanthropies, Michael Bloomberg’s foundation. It won first prize and an award of $5.6 million. It’s now using the money for a pilot for 200 seniors that will start this October. Each participant will get a tablet preloaded with four apps: a Skype-like video chat service, a diary, a picture sharing app, and a voice messaging organizer. The software is designed to be very simple to use. The point isn’t to employ technology for its own sake, but rather to facilitate real social contact, Sanahuja says.

As we’ve seen before at Co.Exist, there’s growing evidence of the negative health effects of social isolation. Some researchers compare its impact to that of smoking or drinking heavily.

The trial will test the approach with a variety of people, including citizens with very limited support groups and those who have family and friends but perhaps don’t interact with them as much or as efficiently as they might (as in the promotional video above). The tablet is designed to put seniors on the same technology as younger people, just a simpler, less fussy version of it.


If the pilot proves successful in reducing reported loneliness, it will be expanded to as many as 20,000 seniors by 2018. Sanahuja says the cost will be about $16.8 million, which the city hopes to fund from the Bloomberg award, its own budget, and corporate sponsorship.

“We think the health system could be a [provider] of our program,” he says. “It already prescribes tele-care, so they could also prescribe this. Isolation is linked to health risks, so it’s logical it would [identify] people who might need this.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.