Elderly Health Tech: A Change of Course Needed?

The Global market for health technology will expand by a third every year into the near future. While this sector expands, so too will the proportion of the UK population that is elderly, with a quarter of the population due to be over 65 by 2050. It is often reported that the elderly are left behind by technology, with the over 65’s frequently cited as ‘the generation that technology forgot’. The same arguments have been made in regards to health technology.

But how true is this? The answer is to some degree.

There is an increasing number of health technologies aimed at the elderly but these are mainly passive technologies. For example Fayet have developed a walking stick that monitors its users and can alert caretakers should the patient fall over. It comes with a variety of other functions, such as the recording of walking habits which are monitored for change, again a message will then be sent to relatives. Sensor Care has developed new technologies which can monitor an elderly persons breathing, heart rate, sleep patterns and stress. The sensors can be placed under chairs and mattresses to monitor patients and alert for any worrying health indicators.

With many outlets claiming that the health technology and technology sector as a whole is finally waking up to the needs of the elderly, this is true but this increase is largely in passive technologies related to the elderly. In these examples the primarily technology participant will be relatives and healthcare professionals who engage with the technology. An increasing number of tools, such as Care Sourcer, are offering families the chance to find care for their elderly loved ones using online platforms that rate carers and give families far more informed choices about care. Again though, the role of the elderly themselves is largely passive in regards to use.

Where health tech needs to catch up is in technologies which involve active elderly participation. To do this some argue that some very simple rules must be followed which will lead to an older person embracing health technologies. These are larger buttons, extra loud speakers, hearing aid compatibility and longer battery life. Stripped back version of technologies such as mobile phones would serve as the model for this. AgeUK offers the OwnFone, a mobile with big buttons that merely sends and receives calls. For so long these kind of attitudes towards elderly embrace of technology have been the conventional wisdom. There is only one problem with this approach, they can be viewed as slightly patronising. Tech Radar saw this trend in 2010, declaring ‘stop patronising the elderly with crappy technology’. The main scorn of the writers are the exact features that I have described, big buttons and numbers. Tech Radar called it ‘expensive crap a toddler would find too simple’.

These kind of idiot proof solutions are not solving the problem of the elderly struggling to use technology but skirting around it, essentially removing the technology and leaving the elderly to use its most simplistic components. The solution is simple, actually teach the elderly how to use real technology. It begs the question ‘has this approach ever really been tried? Or have we presumed that the elderly just won’t be able to do it? With the likely trend in the future being the online booking of GP appointments only, this teaching needs to occur fairly rapidly.

The solution may be complex and a significant amount of money may need to be spent. The families of the elderly also need to become more involved. But we need to move this situation forward and actually devise an approach to solving the problem, not avoiding it by stripping technology away and leaving the elderly to use what is left.

Originally published at www.healthcare.digital on September 27, 2017.


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