Technology for an ageing population
The target markets for the latest technology and gadgets, including the iPhone seems to be aimed mainly at that magic 18-35 demographic. However, if you take a look around you, you’ll see there are lots of people over 35 using an iPhone or an iPad. I’m sure we all have friends or relatives well into their 60s, 70s or even 80s who can’t live without either of those gadgets (despite what they may say!).
If technology is to make a real impact, then it must be helpful without being complicated or intrusive. It also needs to work together with existing devices (phones, hearing aids, hearing aid loops etc) and be reliable. These are key factors and are being addressed.
In care homes, rising operating costs, increasing residency levels, staff turnover and competition make it challenging to improve residential care and satisfaction. Many are looking for ways in which to address these challenges. Technology companies are looking for ways in which they can help.
Market & Trends
The world population is rapidly ageing and we’re living longer. We’re also working longer, are physically active but we can’t stop the march of time when it comes to hearing or vision loss. Some estimates suggest that by 2030 there will be more than twice the number of people over the age of 65 compared with the year 2000. This ageing population is a market that has, in the past, often been overlooked when it comes to new technology and gadgets.
However, this does appear to be changing. Aside from the large rise in the number of elderly people, there are other factors driving the increased interest. One major factor is the fact that technology can help people to remain independent for longer. The ability to continue to communicate is one of the factors that keeps older people independent and independence is a top priority – it’s a common belief that when you stop being able to communicate you move closer to having to move into residential care.
Care Home costs
Also, as the costs of residential care rise, anything that can reduce these costs is going to be very much in demand.
Last but not least is the expectation that just because people are ageing or have a disability their quality of life need not diminish – technology should be able to improve it. In this article we are going to take a look at some of the products and services that are coming and what they promise to deliver.
There are an increasing number of elderly people who, although still socially active with ongoing interests and hobbies, are almost entirely reliant upon family members or younger friends to provide lifts to medical appointments and other activities. Without these resources many of these people would be socially isolated and unable to benefit from health care and activities that could potentially have a great impact upon their quality of life.
For carers or relatives who are concerned about the daily routines of the elderly in their life, or for those that are alone and disconnected from family and concerned about missing medication and doctor’s appointments a solution is required. One approach would be to create an easily accessible and user friendly system whereby the doctor and other health professionals, carers and or family could remotely interact with them; effectively a “telepresence”. This could make an enormous difference to an elderly person’s life.
Consider the many potential services that could be provided by this “telepresence” of one or more individuals (could be medical staff or friends and family) appearing on a large screen set up in the home of an elderly person: interactive social groups, adult education, cognitive stimulation, medical and mental-health assessments, psychological counselling, reminders to take medications, visits with clergy, and shopping to list but a few.
The key elements that telepresence provides are social interactions and observation of the individual. Certain medical and mental-health assessments could prevent unnecessary visits to the hospital, or alert caregivers to evolving issues that warrant prompt intervention. Greater access to mental-health counsellors, dietitians and other specialists could be provided. Telepresence could provide interactive socialisation and education in a greater variety of languages, cultures and religious approaches than available at the local medical centre. An entire industry of telepresence volunteers and services could be created to serve the exploding population of aging individuals.
The basic technology of telepresence already exists, however it needs to be adapted for individuals who are not computer savvy or maybe not comfortable with technology and who may have vision or hearing deficits. Such adaptations should include voice activation, easily navigated menus, interactive operators, remote troubleshooting, simple keyboards, sophisticated volume controls and projection, and extra-large high-definition screens etc.
Telepresence is clearly not a substitute for physical interactions. Realistically, however, the needs of the growing elderly population are stretching current resources and this is only likely to increase unless something fundamental changes. For some aging individuals, telepresence would be merely a bridge to more services; for others, it could become a lifestyle in itself in the same way younger people are using texts, tweets and Facebook posts to interact with the world.
There are also remote health sensors which provide real time monitoring of vital health parameters in a on-intrusive way. By setting thresholds and alarm points, these sensors could alert medical staff, carers or family when the elderly person’s state deteriorates. The alerts could be realised in specific smartphone or tablet apps, which would notify the carer of anything out of the ordinary, and also enable the carer to check periodically for any slight variations which could be a signal of a pending issue.
Activities to enhance and prolong mental abilities
Whilst not the most obvious application for elderly people, computer and video games have been shown to help people to maintain and prolong their metal abilities. I have personally experienced clients with early stages of dementia finding that playing on-line games such as patience is quite beneficial. Over time, if performance was montored then it could be utilised as a diagnostic aid that could help a doctor monitor for signs of reduced cognitive health. Other studies have shown that video games can sharpen the multitasking and memory skills of seniors. The issue here may be in persuading the person to try it in the first place! There could also be an opportunity to develop specific games for more senior citizens. Video gaming could be through consoles, desktop or laptop computers, or even through a tablet or smartphone.
An example of technology helping is a phone that is essentially an oversized speaker phone. It’s designed for the aging, hearing impaired and for people who have difficulty walking and moving whether as a result of a spinal cord injury, stroke or Multiple Sclerosis.
The phone takes out the noise you get on a regular phone and amplifies the sound, and adding an oversized display and touch screen to get messages. The phone talks to you with talking caller ID, is easy to read with a touch screen and large fonts.
But the real impact of this phone is that it was designed for connectivity to the digital world, knowing that all our lives have this component today. It’s equipped with a voice service so users can post on Facebook and Twitter, email, listen to news and check the weather by speaking commands to the phone. It can also provide near to real time captioning of the conversation, similar to the subtitles you see on televisions.
There’s also a tablet which offers similar features, except of course not the basic phone calls, howeverSkype and similar services could be used.
In addition, with specially designed “stands” or “cradles” for the phone or tablet, family, carers or support agents can remotely adjust the angle and position of the phone or tablet so that it is in an optimal position for the user, without the user having to move or adjust anything themselves.
Looking into the (not too distant) future, there’s even a “Robotic Concierge” in development!
The designers of the robot hope to be able to address some of the issues of care homes by combining the very latest in cutting-edge technology with a human touch for residents.
It will provide frequent and personalised check-ins with residents, continuous and automated environmental fall hazard assessments, on-demand non-emergency call button response and working with the type of phone and tablet previously described it can act as a media centre for the resident.
Are these products and services available today? Well, the phone and tablets are currently being introduced in the USA and are expected to be available in the UK later this year. The “Robotic Concierge” is working and being tested in care homes also in the USA.
Clearly as was stated earlier, there is no real substitute for the individual interactions, but new ways of caring are required as the demands grow and the costs rise.
So, new ways of viewing technology at all stages of our lives – enabling not terrifying, improving not confusing and integrated with the way that we want to do things, not dictated by the technology. Maybe at last the market is getting the message.
Clive Struver specialises in helping older people make the most of technology and can be contacted at [email protected]