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Mesh Workshop, Age Friendly Smart City Leeds (Photo credit: David Hayward)

Can technology solve the ageing timebomb?

Speech on the subject of ageing and technology for the Battle of Ideas debate held at The Barbican Centre in London. The debate was chaired by Dr. Frankie Anderson, registrar in neuro-rehabilitation in the Oxford Deanery.

Let me begin by saying I am ambivalent about the role technology can play to solve the ageing timebomb. This is to do with my own personal experiences as well as some of trends that I observe at the moment.

A while back I spent a few years at a research lab developing Biofeedback games for young people. The goal was to find the most efficient way to measure their breath in order to help them improve their breath-control and behaviour. To cut a long story short, one of the key lessons from this exercise was that if you get the context wrong, then technology creates new anxieties that can be detrimental to an individual’s well-being.

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A workshop on breath-control and mindfulness with children in Gifu, Japan

This is why I am ambivalent about the role that technology can play. Take a look around you. There is clearly a race to create the next big disruption in healthcare. But are we thinking about the context?

And what is this timebomb? Yes, there is a significant demographic shift taking place in many countries across the world. This will make an unprecedented demand on the limited health and social care provisions. But referring to the issue in this manner takes a very narrow view of ageing. Is ageing just a case of anatomical and physiological degradation? This view doesn’t take into account any of the advantages that give an older person the upper hand. What about experience, insight and intuition?

The marketplace is crowded with gadgets and apps that can quantify pretty much every aspect of your day to day life. From movement and sleep to heart rate variability and skin conductance. So should we strap, buckle and attach these devices to the elderly in the hope that if something goes wrong, the concerned authorities will immediately be notified . This may very well be the height of efficiency. But in this scenario, every older person is indeed a ticking timebomb. If I was in this situation, I would certainly implode under the pressure.

I am ambivalent about the role that technology can play because I worry we may end up with a whole host of unforeseen problems. We do have emerging anecdotal evidence that hints at what these problems might be. I’m going to refer to an example that is from the opposite end of the ageing spectrum.

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IMAGE: VICKY LETA/MASHABLE

You may have heard of the quantified baby trend. Parents using apps to track moods, movements and diaper changes of their newborn. Tim Chester, deputy editor of Mashable has just published a piece that documents his own experiences of quantifying his baby over several months. He explains how he set out on this journey to simplify parenthood but the excessive use of technology made it much more daunting. He has a mountain of data but isn’t quite sure what to do with it. And all the false alarms, when the monitoring technology malfunctioned, put him in a state of heightened anxiety. Most notably, he mentions that the constant tracking altered his relationship with his child. To quote him — ‘there were times I had more in common with my iPhone than my son.’

All these problems can easily be extrapolated to a scenario that involves the excessive use of technology with the elderly — say in an sheltered care home, with vulnerable persons who may have lost their sense of agency.

But, there is hope.

Let’s take another example with similar elements and this time add context. Sara Riggare is a PhD student at acclaimed Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at the age of 32. She is also leading proponent of the Quantified Self movement. For many years now she has been tracking her own data to help her manage her condition. She decided to use technology to empower herself and make shared decisions with her neurologist. On average she sees her neurologist an hour a year and the remaining 8,765 hours are spent in self-care. Her end goal is to spent less time in health care.

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Image src: http://www.riggare.se/1-vs-8765/

This is just one of many examples that gives me hope that technology can address the needs of the elderly within the constraints on resources. You need to add context. It is a case of small steps. Yes sure, we can have virtual avatars and robotic assistants. However, before we seek like-for-like replacements, let’s figure out how technology can become an adjunct to existing relationships. Let’s take into account the anxieties of older persons who find themselves in a vulnerable position. And indeed, the needs of primary care givers.

I’ll conclude with a little anecdote from a project that has been running a little over a year in Leeds. In this project we’re working with older residents, public sector service providers and technologists to understand how technology can create an age friendly city.

One of our focus areas is social isolation. We were set a challenge by an older resident who wants to use digital tools to create the simplest possible communications device. So we built one. It’s a box with a button that allows residents in a sheltered care home to communicate with each other once they retire to their rooms. It uses fairly sophisticated mesh technology but it has 9 parts that can be taken apart and put back together again. When we ran our first usability exercise, one of our participants, who is 97 years old, enthusiastically gave us three reasons why would use this device to keep in touch with her family and companions.

I am hopeful that technology can and will play a significant role when it comes to taking care of the elderly. But we need to put a lot more effort into understanding the context in which in can be used.

Thank you,
Abhay Adhikari

Thank you to all the panelists who were part of this rather energetic and inspiring debate — Jobeda Ali (CEO, Three Sisters Care); Maja Kecman (design lead, HELIX, St Mary’s Hospital); Jeannette Pols (Professor of social theory, humanism and materialities, University of Amsterdam) and Sonia Sodha (Observer leader writer).

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