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Wesley Cheng

2019 CSA Conference


Wesley Cheng

Executive Director


Promises and Pitfalls of Social Technologies

Social isolation and loneliness have been receiving a lot of interest recently. According to an article by AARP, “A study by professors Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Timothy Smith of Brigham Young University found that prolonged social isolation is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is more harmful than obesity. Social isolation has been linked to higher blood pressure, greater susceptibility to the flu and other infectious diseases, and earlier onset of dementia.” There are numerous articles discussing the use of technology to solve these issues. However, many do not address the underlying causes and therefore do not offer long term solutions.

Social isolation and loneliness are two different conditions. Social isolation is lack of contact from others, such as is typical when one has lost mobility and is therefore unable to get out of the house. Loneliness on the other hand is a psychological condition often associated with depression.

Changes in modern societal structure have exacerbated social isolation. In the past, people lived near their family and never moved too far away, always having physical and social support as they aged. Today, children often move away when they grow up and elderly parents are left to themselves.

How can technology play a part to solve this issue? The latest trend involves the use of artificial intelligence embedded in devices or robots; responding, learning and adjusting to the user’s inputs. Plus, there are lots of other well-known socialization technologies. We will map these technologies using a framework that consists of two dimensions:

  • • Delivery Mode
  • • Cognitive Challenges

Delivery Mode is how the technology appears to a user. Static technologies like Facebook where people post messages are efficient methods for updating many people. Older adults enjoy keeping up with what their adult children and grandchildren are doing. Interactive technologies such as Skype or FaceTime allow people to talk to each other in real time.

Cognitive Challenges describes the continuum of cognitive impairment from none to severe dementia. This is an important dimension because the ability to use certain social technologies is dependent on cognitive ability. Past the age of 85, about half of older adults will experience some kind of mild cognitive impairment. Technologies like email, Facebook or Skype which require the use of a computer may not be suitable for people with cognitive impairment unless someone provides assistance.

We will look at the categories of social technologies and examine some of the popular ones in detail:

  • • Telepresence/communications technologies
  • • Social media, email
  • • Smart speakers, voice first interfaces (eg. Alexa)
  • • Social robots
  • • Therapy robots
  • • Socialization services

 We will discuss considerations these technologies have on:

  • • Meaning and purpose
  • • High tech, high touch
  • • Safety, trust & privacy

Using some standard tools and introducing some new ones, the presentation will provide a method to:

  • • Assess the level of social isolation and associated loneliness of an older adult using the UCLA Loneliness Scale
  • • Research and understand any social technology using the Social Technology Framework
  • • Recommend social technologies that may have long term benefits for older adults

Technology plays its part by bridging the distance between groups of people, whether physical or virtual. Self-driving cars have the potential to solve the issue to mobility once older adults lose their driver’s license. While all major automobile companies are working on them, with semi-automated driving already available on some models, a fully automated version may be years away. Beyond the technology, governments are trying to figure out the legal and liability issues. Who is at fault during an accident when there is no driver? These may take longer to work out than the technology.

Learning Objectives

  • Understanding of social isolation and loneliness
  • Understanding of categories of current socialization technologies, applications and limitations
  • Ability to assess and recommend appropriate solutions for clients

About Wesley

Wesley Cheng is the founder and executive director of, a California 501(c)(3) not for profit organization that connects older adults to each other through their participation in interactive group activities from comfort of home using tablets. He also started the PBC Village, a virtual village that serves the practical needs of over 80 older adults. 

He is a high tech entrepreneur who co-founded KonaWare, a wireless applications company for mobile devices, in 2001, which was eventually sold to GPS pioneer Trimble. He then founded HabitatCare, a research and consulting company that focused on aging-in-place technology solutions. Wesley has also spent 16 years in technical management positions at Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems.

He concurrently serves as the Chief Operating Officer for Stack Labs, winner of the 2016 Aging 2.0 competition for its Smart Home solution to keep older adults safe in their homes.

Wesley received his BS Computer Engineering from University of the Pacific, and MS Computer Engineering from University of Southern California. 

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