I recently gave the opening address to a conference jointly hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Age UK. The title of the conference was ‘Designing cost-effective care for older people: how technology can make a difference’ and I was asked to give ‘An on-the-ground perspective on the role of technology in the care of older people’.
Keeping people out of hospitals and supporting them so that they can live safely and comfortably at home are challenges that the government are trying to address, and technology and engineering can provide some of the solutions.
There are two main forms of assistive-living technology: telecare and telehealth. Teleheath services are aimed at helping people manage their long term health conditions in their own home. (Conditions include – diabetes, heart failure and/ or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Teleceare services are aimed at vulnerable people who need the support of Social Care or Health Services to keep living on their own. For example those with physical disabilities, the frail and elderly or those suffering from dementia or epilepsy.
Unfortunately, to date take up has been rather slow; there are only around 5,000 telehealth users and only 1.5m pieces of telecare in use today.
My talk focused on how we can increase the use of technology in a way that enhances people’s lives. This drew in part from a project we are involved in funded by the Technology and Strategy Board titled: COBALT: Challenging Obstacles and Barriers to Assisted Living Technologies. We are about half-way through this project and have spoken to many older people. What we have seen so far is that, contrary to the common assumption that technology has passed older people by and that they fear it or are dubious about the value in terms of improving their lives, older people do embrace technology on their own terms: television ownership, for example, is virtually 100%.
The problem is that assistive-living technology tends to be presented and provided differently to other forms of technology, like a microwave or a TV. Instead they need to be focused on the person and designed to fit into everyday life, rather than symbolise frailty or decline.
If uptake is to change designers, developers, engineers and purchasers (both private and public) need to rethink how the technology is created and presented. The creation of personal budgets in social care and the development of these in health mean purchasing of assisted-living technology will be more consumer driven in the future. Designers of this type of technology will have to place greater emphasis on what the consumer wants.
The conference suggested that those responsible for developing these technologies are responding to these considerations and technology that actually improves and enhances people’s lives, as well as being desirable is likely to dramatically increase in the near future.
Find out more about Age UK’s Engage Business network, which helps businesses better serve the needs of older people
Find out more about our public policy work on consumer issues