Text Size

What in the (brave new) world do we do about getting older?

As with many other aspects in today’s ever changing life challenges, using ‘smart’ systems might be a particularly wise move. 

With life expectancy increasing the pressure on health and wellbeing services for those getting older will only increase. Other sectors have unleashed the power of technology to help solve problems. Aged care should be no exception. 

In the United Kingdom a paper called Older People in Acute Settings, published by the National Health Service, has set forward a policy framework for helping to care for elderly or frail people. 

Technology plays a big part in delivering smart systems. Many of these are being applied, or may have relevance in New Zealand. 

Better health at the push of a button

At their most basic level, websites provide information, support and companionship. Carers UK, for instance, has an online forum on which carers can pose questions and share advice; Cura offers a simple, secure and shareable online calendar that helps families find respite care for their loved ones; while Grannynet supports a community of more than 3,000 grandmothers.

Smartphone apps can also help to optimise personal ageing. There are some 100,000 health apps available today, many of which aim to address health inequity, increase physical activity and healthy diets and empower people to take control of their own health.

Loneliness and isolation have been linked to a range of health problems, from depression to the increased risk of heart attack and stroke. To try to address this, tech companies are developing easy-to-use tools to connect older people to their friends and relatives, such as a Skype-like video-conferencing facility that works through a set-top box and remote control, rather than through a computer.

However, with the prevalence of smartphones and tablets these days even among the older community, tools such as SMS, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram are also becoming more commonly used.

Staying independent for longer

Staying independent for longer is what many wish for. Virtual Villages are one pathway as are stand-alone ‘tele’ services such as telecare, telehealth and telemedicine. These are applications, or devices, to help people better manage their own conditions more cost-effectively and with less wasted time. 

None of these are designed to fully replace personal service but are tools that stand alongside to produce positive outcomes. Fall detectors are one example of telecare. 

In the United Kingdom, falling is the most common cause of injury-related death in people aged over 75. There are around 282,000 reported falls each year, costing the NHS £2.3bn. An innovative product such as Auto Alert is a pendant people wear around their necks and uses a series of sensors, and algorithms, to detect if someone has fallen. Time savings in getting help can save lives. 

Telehealth services can, from the comfort of a person’s own home, monitor vital signs such as blood pressure, heart rate and even glucose levels. 

Telemedicine, in which consultations are delivered remotely through video and audio, also reduces the need for patients to travel to hospital or the GP surgery.

For all the benefits that technology can bring, there are challenges, too – especially around adoption.  This may make some applications difficult to implement. In 2014 an event was held entitled Creating Connected Communities for Ageing Well. 

This looked at some of the attitudinal barriers that might exist as possible impediments to technology adoption. Survey results on the one hand said that some 91% of people wanted to stay in their own homes as they grew older. Then they commented they were adverse to make the necessary changes to design modifications that might be needed. 

As older people become more tech-savvy this level of resistance, particularly in light of real and perceived benefits, may change. 

Exploring how older adults learn new technology

The so-called “digital divide” has been an area of focus for many researchers hoping to develop strategies to increase literacy in technology use (among older adults in particular). In a novel approach to this problem, researchers investigated how older adults naturally learn to use new technology, specifically tablet computers.

The researchers conducted interviews with 20 older adults from independent and assisted living communities who had reported acquiring a tablet. Some respondents who had bought a tablet reported being confident and excited to use the new device, while others who had received the device as a gift were more hesitant. Most, however, reported the devices were easy to use.

Social support factors played a significant role in enabling respondents to learn how to use a tablet. Support from family, often from children or grandchildren, was the most common source of support, but support from professionals or peers was reported as well. Interestingly, the most learning tended to come from “playing around” with the device. This technique of trial and error is useful for individuals of any age to learn something new, and in this setting, it appears to work well with older adults.

The researchers noted that a combination of ease of use, social support, and time to play around with the tablet was the key to learning for these individuals. The support system allowed participants to be confident enough to explore and learn new things about the device, while not having to worry they would come to a problem they couldn’t solve. While this study focused on learning to use tablets, the results may be generalizable to other new technologies that older adults could benefit from learning to use.