The COVID-19 pandemic has rightly sparked a serious and long-overdue national conversation about long-term care. All of us should be deeply troubled by the suffering wrought by COVID-19 in our long-term care homes – death and serious illness among residents and caregivers, painful isolation from loved ones, debilitating stress and fear among workers with insufficient resources.
There’s another conversation we need to have: how to keep older adults living independently longer. It’s what most of us want and it has the added benefit of easing the burden on institutional care.
But we need technological innovation to get there. Canada is a leader in AgeTech, a promising field that harnesses existing and emerging technologies to enable older adults and caregivers to continue to live healthily and safely in their homes.
A glimpse of the future can be found at an innovation hub in Ottawa called SAM3 (Sensors and Analytics for Monitoring Mobility and Memory). This joint initiative of AGE-WELL, Bruyère Research Institute and Carleton University features a simulated “smart” apartment where researchers are testing an array of new technologies to support older people. A sensor over the stove warns that a pot has boiled dry. Pressure-sensitive mats placed under mattresses monitor an older adult’s health during sleep or detect if she or he is unstable when getting up.
SHOWN ABOVE: Authors Dr. Andrew Sixsmith and Dr. Alex Mihailidis are Scientific Directors of AGE-WELL
More generally, a growing number of quality apps will increasingly help us manage our health at home, while staying connected to health-care professionals. People living with arthritis can now use a smartphone to manage their arthritis and track how they are doing between doctor and physiotherapy appointments. There’s a new app to help older adults recover at home from knee replacement surgery.
These kinds of innovations can support a person dealing with physical or cognitive decline, allowing them to stay safely in their home while assuaging the fears of loved ones.
A poll conducted in 2019 by Environics Research for AGE-WELL showed that older people are open to technology. Seventy-four percent of those over the age of 65 indicated they are confident using technology and 70 percent would be prepared to pay out of pocket for technology that allows them to stay in their home longer.
Physical distancing during COVID-19 has cut off many older people from essential emotional support from their families and friends. A communications platform developed by FamiliNet allows seniors who might have few computer skills to connect with family.
Technology can also help to transform long-term care. It can reduce the workload of staff members, freeing them to give more personalized attention to each resident. For example, a Canadian startup called Able Innovations is developing a compact device called the Delta Platform. It allows a single caregiver to transfer a person to and from a bed, without risking injury to either.
We must be smart in creating and adopting technology. The people who are to use it must be part of the development from beginning to end to ensure it makes sense for them. That is why the AGE-WELL network involves older adults and caregivers at all stages of the development of technologies to support healthy aging.
Access to AgeTech must be equitable. People in big cities generally have ready access to broadband, but it is often a challenge in rural and Indigenous communities. It should be recognized as an essential service. In care homes, Wi-Fi varies in quality. It needs to be solid. Technological innovations must carry reasonable price tags. Great gadgets do no good if the people who need them most cannot afford them.
The pandemic has proven the value of telehealth programs, but the availability of virtual health care is fragmented and narrow and relies on older technology that will soon become obsolete. It should be greatly broadened as a means of supporting aging in place and improving care even after the pandemic passes.
We should learn the hard lessons of the COVID-19 crisis and let them be the catalyst for meaningful change. Canada’s brilliant AgeTech researchers and entrepreneurs are showing that this sector has enormous potential to not only improve the quality of all our lives as we age, but to create good jobs and spark economic growth. Let’s continue to support and nurture it.
About the authors: Dr. Alex Mihailidis and Dr. Andrew Sixsmith are Scientific Directors of AGE-WELL, a federally-funded Network of Centres of Excellence. AGE-WELL brings together researchers, older adults, caregivers, partner organizations and future leaders to accelerate the delivery of technology-based solutions that make a meaningful difference in the lives of Canadians.