Remember that commercial in which an elderly woman famously calls out, “Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!”? It was an advertisement for a 24-hour emergency medical- response system that allowed users to connect with 911 at the push of a button on a small device.
Health-care technology for seniors has come a long way since the late 1980s. Even so, this 30-plus-year-old product illustrates how some of the most basic concepts have remained the same.
“It's a fundamental piece of technology and it's improved radically,” says Michael Nicin, executive director of the National Institute on Ageing.
“COVID has really lit a fire under virtual-connection technology.”
The pandemic and the devastation that hit long-term-care homes dramatically altered the way we view our own vulnerability and health, and forced us to seriously consider how and where we want to age. For many, the experience has kindled a strong desire to age in place—whether in their current home or in a retirement community—but how does one make long-term preparations for this?
“There's been a big awakening to saying, 'I don't want to end up that way. I want to do what I can now to get a grip of my circumstances, do what I can, because I don't want to leave the later stages of my life to fate,'” Nicin says.
Connecting through technology
Social isolation—a hallmark of COVID-19—disproportionately hit seniors, immigrants and those with lower incomes especially hard. It can take an enormous physical toll on your body; Nicin points to research that shows it as the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Geography can also play a role in loneliness. Canadian families today live very differently than previous generations. People have fewer kids, which means fewer adult children to share in the caregiving responsibilities. Families are more geographically dispersed, experts note, underscoring the importance of Wi-Fi coverage and access to it as a basic necessity.
Compounding the challenges are factors out of our control. Winter, for example, can be very difficult for older Canadians with mobility or transportation challenges, leaving them essentially housebound during the icy and cold season.
Technology can play a crucial role in alleviating that disconnectedness. We saw that play out throughout the pandemic, with Zoom calls and FaceTime sessions with grandparents and grandchildren, sometimes halfway around the world.
“As we age, we typically start to see the loss of social ties to friends, family and to the community ... And so technology can play a huge role there in helping to connect people,” says Alex Mihailidis, a professor and biomedical engineer at the University of Toronto. He leads a research group that looks at the role of technology and elder care and how artificial intelligence might help.
Elder-care experts define “technology” broadly and say solutions can be as basic as installing well-placed grab bars at home to help with balance, to much more sophisticated home- and personal-monitoring systems. These systems can detect levels of movement or unusual activity, helping caregivers understand any health changes or alerting them when something is wrong.
“These types of technologies can make a world of difference, ensuring the safety of individuals and making sure they can live in their own homes,” Mihailidis says.
“There are some very common technologies out there that can be used and implemented in a quite cost-effective manner and have a big impact.”
Apps are another inexpensive tool that can ease some of the toll caregiving can take. Some can help caregivers share budgets and appointment notes and coordinate schedules, for example.
For those in their 50s or 60s wanting to plan ahead, some solutions geared toward aging independently in place can be much more involved and expensive. These include potentially costly retrofits to the home, installing floor sensors or a stairlift. It could also mean moving to a single-story home or somewhere closer to transit options and health-care services.
”The main reason we see a lot of people going into nursing homes, for example, is because they can't maintain their independence in their own home,” says Nicin. ”Something like a fall might take you from living independently in your own home one day, to needing to be in a facility—indefinitely—the next,” says Nicin.
“Nursing homes end up becoming a place of last resort for a lot of people.”
Harnessing artificial intelligence (A.I.) for elder care
On the cutting edge of health-care technology developments for elder care is the research into how A.I. and robotics can improve caregiving and quality of life for seniors.”
Researchers are exploring how A.I. can help predict people's behavior, and how robots can help with socialization and managing daily activities and reminders. While off-the-shelf devices like Amazon's Alexa can manage some of the more basic tasks, Mihailidis points to research that suggests an animated robot is more effective, particularly when dealing with individuals with cognitive impairments.
“I look at the role of artificial intelligence and these technologies so that they can automatically learn about the person and adapt the level of care that's provided,” says Mihailidis, who also researches the role of artificial intelligence in determining changes in a person's health.
“How can we predict that someone may be developing dementia before it's too late for intervention? How do we predict those who are at risk of falling or becoming frail, so that, again, you can put interventions in place?”
COVID-19 exposed how dramatically underfunded and understaffed some long-term-care homes are, and with a large cohort of seniors waiting just around the corner, investing in labour-saving technologies to help staff provide higher-quality care will be a significant part of the equation, says Nicin.
While much of it is still in the experimental phase, some formal care settings are already getting a taste of the more promising health-care technology that experts hope can one day become an affordable and cost-effective option for wider adoption.
A generational change
Over the next decade or so, there'll be a dramatic change in the senior demographics across Canada, which will also change the way we approach technology. Keeping technology as simple as possible is crucial.
On both an emotional and practical level, planning ahead and communicating with loved ones is an important part of ensuring your wishes to age in place are understood.
“Your plan should be properly documented and include a power of attorney for property and one for personal care. This way your wishes are clear in the event you can't communicate them yourself,” says Leanne Kaufman, president and CEO of RBC Royal Trust.
Planning ahead can save loved ones from having to learn new things during an emergency, or being taken by surprise with a caregiving role they weren't prepared for.
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