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Assistive tech: Changing our later lives

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When you have no health issues, it’s easy to take for granted things like mobility, memory, and independence. However, as we get older and our needs become greater, day-to-day tasks can require extra help. This is where assistive technology comes in, and it encompasses everything from wheelchairs to smart homes.

Assistive technology as a whole means anything that aids people with disabilities, but there are a couple of different categories for these devices. Adaptive technology, on the other hand, is a more specific term that covers objects or programs that are expressly designed to be used by those who have disabilities to help maintain or increase what they’re able to do.

Our Real Retirement Report found that over a third (34%) of over 75s are already using technology to manage their health issues1 which, as we live longer and resources become tighter, will only grow.

We spoke to John Lamb, Executive Director of the British Assistive Technology Association, who says these devices are “breaking down the barriers that may otherwise prevent them from being full members of society.”

Innovative tech for the elderly

Interestingly, Lamb says that the thing that elderly people find most useful is tech that helps them get online. He also says one of the main problems elderly people face is loss of sight or hearing, so items like miniaturized magnification systems can be massively beneficial to facilitate simple things like reading.

Some examples of the wider supportive technology that can be used to help the elderly include:

  • Telecare systems. These devices allow people to continue to live in their homes. This could be in the form of fall detectors, gas and smoke detectors, and thermometers that alert carers if a response is needed.
  • Mobility aids. Ranging from wheelchairs to transfer devices like stair lifts, these enable people to move around more easily.
  • Daily living aids. These objects are designed to help people with the functional aspects of their lives such as getting dressed or eating. It can include things like grippers so people can open containers, and weighted cutlery that’s easier to hold.
  • Everyday objects. Post-it notes or even a calendar clock can help someone with dementia remember something. Assistive tech doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to make someone’s life that bit more comfortable.

Technology changing lives

The ways these objects can improve people’s lives is endless. 66% of over 75s say technology has already made their lives better, which shows that it is being adopted and enjoyed. For example, Lamb says items such as hearing aids that “eliminate background noise are essential to help people overcome hearing loss.” He also says that “voice recognition is a boon for those who can’t use a keyboard or push buttons.”

Staying in the family home is very important to many elderly people. We found that 80% of over-45 homeowners want to remain in their homes for as long as they physically can during retirement2, and assistive tech is one of the things giving people the freedom to do that. Lamb says that telecare devices like “sensors in the home that monitor people's movement, will lead to an increased sense of safety and security at home and reassurance for relatives.”

The future of assistive technology

Technology in general is advancing at an astounding rate, and devices that enhance the lives of elderly people are no different. Lamb believes that one of the most intriguing innovations will be care robots that “augment human carers and provide round the clock attention for housebound older people.” Additionally, “driverless cars will keep others mobile for much longer, enabling older people to live more independent lives.” It has also been voiced that there may be new developments in the world of virtual reality that will alleviate stress and anxiety. Dr. Sonya Kim’s Aloha VR system and MITs Rendever have both been hailed as massive progressions in the way we look after older people and their mental and physical wellbeing.

Making tech accessible

Accessibility is one area that’s up for discussion in this industry. It’s all very well to invent numerous solutions for supporting the elderly, but if people can’t afford to own them, these gadgets become irrelevant. Lamb says that options like telecare could actually serve to reduce the cost of social care in general, meaning that vulnerable people can be monitored and still live at home.

As well as the financial concerns, Lamb argues, “all of these innovations must be carefully designed to avoid de-personalising and isolating older people.” For some elderly people, loneliness is a big problem, and visiting carers provide an important part of regular social interaction. Therefore, that human element will need to be taken into account.

Lamb says it will be a challenge for designers and social policy makers to merge their expertise and resources to ensure they “put themselves in the place of older people, simulating disabilities if need be and testing their designs with older users.” But, far from tech becoming more and more sophisticated, he says “simplicity of design is the key to creating products that can be easily used by older people.”

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Additional sources

[1]Aviva Real Retirement Report Winter 2016
[2]Aviva Real Retirement Report Summer 2016

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