Technology has come up with the answer for people living along who dislike solitary meals: the virtual family dinner, where relatives hundreds of miles apart get together for a chat.
Accenture, the consulting company, is exploiting the explosion in broadband access to provide lonely people, notably the elderly, with a way to get together with relatives as often as they’d like, updating the traditional family meal.
The concept is simple. An elderly woman in, say, Scotland, prepares a meal and, as she sits down to eat, a screen, which is transparent when not in use, pops up at the end of the table.
A computer program runs through a directory of pre-registered family members and friends to find someone who is “available for dinner” – or, at least, a conversation.
The virtual guest’s image is then projected on to the screen and the solitary diner no longer feels that she is eating alone.
“We are trying to really bring back the kind of family interactions we used to take for granted,” said Dadong Wan, a senior researcher in Accenture’s laboratories in Chicago.
Recent figures showed that more than half of women aged over 75 lived alone, and a survey by Help the Aged disclosed that television was the main source of company for nearly half of all over-65s.
“The whole idea is to make sure they eat right,” said Mr Wan. “Recent studies have already shown that people at high risk of under-nourishment consume more than 100 calories extra per meal if they eat with someone else present.”
When a prototype becomes available, in no more than a year or two, it is likely to cost up to £500 per household, Mr Wan said. Insurance companies and Government agencies could one day help to pay for the system, much as they do for home helps, once they see its benefits.