Technology has had a huge impact on many of our lives. We can now instantly video chat with friends and family across the world, spend money in our bank accounts with the tap of a card and even track our fitness levels through a wearable device. But how is technology benefitting our aging population? And what prototypes are in development?
Assisting with mobility
Physical inactivity has been estimated to cost the NHS £10bn per year, with £2.5bn of this spend on care as a result of poor housing. In fact, although many older people may want to move into a ground floor flat for example, the facilities simply aren’t there. There’s said to be a bungalow shortage occurring in the UK too — emphasising the need for in-house help for those with mobility limitations.
The percentage of people who have difficulty with at least one activity involved in daily living increases from 16% at age 65 to around 50% at age 85. Yet, home aids and adaptations can increase people’s ability to perform everyday activities by 49%, and reduce depressive symptoms by 53%.
Dr Helen Meese, Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: “About seven million UK homes are headed by someone aged over 65 years, who will undoubtedly need some form of assistive technology to help with everyday living, within the coming decade.
“Homes built with older people in mind, as well as retrofit technology for our existing housing stock, could not only allow people to live in their homes for longer, but also massively reduce costs for the NHS and social care system.”
Although not a recent technological advancement, the stairlift
is often a life-saving device for many. Over 50% of customers bought a stairlift from Acorn Stairlifts in order to help them ease the pain that they experience due to arthritis. This innovation allows elderly people to stay in their home for longer and enjoy their independence whilst they can.
There are many smart home devices that help people who are limited in their mobility. Users can control important variables in the home such as heating and lighting without having to move. There are many variants of these devices, some which can be controlled by voice and others which can be controlled via a specially designed remote or app. There are also robot vacuums available which navigate themselves around the home and hoover up any dirt — a job that a frailer person may struggle to do.
There are some ideas in the later stages of development too. One of these is a piece of technology that guides people to the toilet when it predicts that they need to go. This can prevent unwanted accidents and embarrassment for an individual whilst making them feel less reliant on carers and family members.
Likewise, developers in Japan have been focused on designing devices that can help older residents get out of bed, into a wheelchair, or to the toilet. Again, this has been prototyped to ease the strain of limited carers and an aging population.
Another possible future device is a smart wheelchair that is capable of reading brainwaves. It can drive its user to a desired destination for example and pause and divert if needed.
Social isolation and loneliness are two growing issue in the UK. Shockingly, one study discovered that around 200,000 older people in Britain had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. Those who feel socially isolated and lonely are more likely to use public services too, due to a lack of support networks and an increased likelihood to develop health conditions such as depression, dementia and heart disease.
Fortunately, there are some innovators that are trying to tackle the problem through technology research and development. Currently, interventions such as video calls, computer training and access to the internet have been shown to have a positive impact on social isolation — but what else is available?
One Japanese invention is Paro, the robot seal pup. This device has been employed in nursing homes since 2003 and encourages the residents to interact and talk with the robot. It has found to be very therapeutic and can be used as a catalyst for those who suffer from depression — encouraging a return to a healthier state.
The Family in Touch (FIT) Prototype was developed by a research student who discovered that elderly people touch photos of their loved ones to relive a memory and connect with the person in the picture. This discovery led to the creation of a picture frame that is surrounded in LED lights. When the user touches the frame, family members are informed and they can send a video message back to the user. Older people reported that the enjoyed the invention and how easy it was to use but they said that they’d like to send a message or video back if possible.
InTouch Living, a solution set up in Australia, is an innovation that allows carers to deliver care remotely through digital technology. The elderly person is provided with a tablet from which they can connect with others. Carers can set up virtual meetings to talk about isolation feelings and general wellbeing and can also hold a group call with older people of similar interests. If the user become confident in using the device, they can initiate their own calls. Research discovered that InTouch Living allows care to be delivered at 60% of the cost of face-to-face support services.
Improving health and wellbeing
As we know, as individuals age, they are more prone to health complications and memory loss. There are some devices that have been invented to help with these issues.
There are a few medication reminders and interactive pill boxes on the market that remind individuals to take medication at the right times. One of these is MedMinder, a collection of automatic medication dispensers. First, the relevant dispenser flashes to remind individuals to take their tablets. If the medication still isn’t taken, the dispenser makes a noise and after this it makes a phone call to the user. If the tablet still isn’t taken, the device cleverly notifies a caregiver or member of family.
Older people are prone to falls and loss of balance due to some mobility issues. A fall can really affect an elderly person and can lead to hospital treatment. There are now fall sensors in care homes and specially-adapted homes which can alert a warden if someone is out of bed who is at high risk of falling and inform them of a fall.
For older people who still live in their own homes, wandering can be a big concern for family members. Although a walk can be beneficial for an older person or a dementia sufferer, they are at risk of getting confused or lost. The invention of a GPS tracker allows family members to monitor where their older relative is through an app on their phone. This gives both the family member and individual more confidence when walking outside of the home. Similarly, alarms can be fitted so that a carer or relative is informed of a relative leaving the home — this can be tailored to certain time frames to avoid night-time wandering.
As we can see, there is a range of technology out there that is aiming to help our older generation. And, with many ground-breaking innovations still in the development phases, who knows what the future holds for elderly care.