The elderly are eager to use technology that will facilitate their lives.
The elderly of today already use technology, which doesn’t always have to be high-tech. In some cases they already have a life-depending relation with technology. They prefer technological aids to be simple in use and easy on the budget. Contemporary elderly lack a certain technological ‘touch’. They will have to learn to use the more complicated technological aids. Exploring the capabilities of these technologies by simply experimenting, like the younger generations do, isn’t so obvious for them. But focusing only on the elderly of today will not suffice, because ‘the elderly’ aren’t a fixed constant. The general interest and technological knowledge of this target group will shift constantly. Thus, for new technological aids to be successful, developers will have to keep in mind the technological ‘touch’ of the generation they are developing for, they will have to keep it simply and as cheap as possible.
In this blog we investigated the statement given in the title. Technology is evolving at a high rate which seems almost unstoppable. With these technological improvements the quality of life increases and with it, the average life expectancy. The increasing amount of elderly requires more specially trained people to take care of them. These social workers and their training will cost a great deal of money to society. But a new market is starting to emerge.
Companies and scientists are researching the possibilities for technology to help the elderly in their daily lives. Some technological aids that are already in use can help to maintain social contact (e.g. a cellphone for seniors, internet), others help the less mobile to get around (e.g. electric wheelchair and stair lift). Even the most common aids like a walking cane can be viewed as technology helping the elderly. However new, more sophisticated, technology keeps popping up (e.g. exoskeletons) and the question is whether people with a respected age are willing to use it.
First of all, we mustn’t forget that there are already many examples of inventions with the purpose of helping the elderly (i.e. hearing aids, glasses, medicines, etc.). One of the oldest facilitators is a walking cane: a simple stick which enhances the mobility and safety during mobilization. Other technologies commonly used by the elderly are electrical transportation aids like the electric wheelchair and the stair lift. So we notice that, to some extent, the elderly aren’t reluctant at all to use this ‘technology’ as a personal aid.
But nowadays when we think about technological life facilitators, we think about high-tech gadgets. Smartphones, laptops, GPS and many more have become a part of our lives. Technological developments, also the ones designed to assist the elderly, are getting more complicated every day. The idea, for instance, to get retired people out of their social isolation by means of the internet and social networking sites isn’t that absurd. The only obstacle is the fact that the present elderly are not all able to use a personal computer, let alone the internet. Using a computer isn’t so ‘obvious’ for them as it is for the younger generations. When kids learn to work with a computer, DVD player or other programmable devices, they experiment with all the function without even bothering to read the manual. This trial and error method gives them a technological ‘feeling’. They possess a certain techno-logic. Elderly will be able to follow instructions (given in a computer course for example) and remember them ,but whenever something unfamiliar arises they won’t know what to do. Trial and error isn’t a preferred method of working for them because their fear of doing something wrong.
A normal trend would be that together with this increasing complexity, the price will rise. However, we must pay attention to the fact that the elderly are not prepared to spend a great deal of money. We must remind ourselves that if we want to help the elderly in their daily lives, our solutions don’t always have to be sophisticated and complex. Simple constructions, like a handle next to the bathtub, can aid the persons getting in and out the tub in a safe manner. And the simpler the facilitator, the lower the price will be.
On the other hand we have to remember that the older generation isn’t a fixed constant. People enjoying their retirement today are people who didn’t have a computer when they were growing up. Some didn’t even have a television set until they were a teenager. The technological expansion started when they were young adults. Things like a microwave were high-tech devices those days.
For example: mobile phone technology is rather young. The first hand held mobile phone call was performed in 1973. By the time a full working mobile communication network was installed, it was already 10 years later. After that, commercial mobile phones emerged and it was only in the 90’s that suddenly almost everybody owned one. This example illustrates that by the time this technology was commercialized, the people who are now our elderly were a bit too old to be dragged into this technological explosion. People who grew up with this technology (mobile phones, programmable VCR- or DVD-players) have a head start.
When the younger generation of today hits a respectable age, they will have generated a technological feeling. When growing up with a cellphone and a personal laptop from the age of 12 on, learning to work with new types of technology when at an older age will take less effort. Also, when developing new ways of technological aids, we can develop them in such a way that no new skills have to be learned. Mapping what the average person is capable of, regarding technology, engineers can design their devices/services to meet these skills. Simplicity is key.
So only focusing on the elderly of today as a market group will not be sufficient. This sub group should be examined constantly, recording the evolution in its wishes and needs and using this information to develop group specific solutions.
Another important factor to keep in mind is what the elderly really want. We often focus too much on what we think they need. The iCat is a great example of this fact. In the efforts to reduce the chance of elderly slipping into a state of social isolation, some researchers came up with a robot shaped like a cat. The idea was to develop a conversation partner for the elderly who could keep an eye on them. A gentle voice would tell the patient to take his medicines or would ask which kind of music he’d like to hear. From a technological point of view it was a great piece of high-tech engineering, completed with speech recognition. But when they tested the prototype in practice, many problems occurred. The iCat couldn’t understand the patient and vice versa, leading to awkward silences or agitation. Sometimes it would misunderstand the person and perform a task that was never asked.
The researchers linked social contact to verbal communication. Other concepts showed that this link isn’t always necessary. Aibo, for example, is a pet robot dog which acts as a real pet animal, so without ‘talking human’. It can bark, walk, sit, play and even feel sick. As the person takes care of him, he creates his own character. He can become a playful dog, a sweet dog who likes cuddle (he has sensor able to pick up when it’s being touched) and even a dog who enjoys braking the occasional piece of porcelain. Results showed that the elderly forgot that they were playing with and even talking to a robot after a while. They really enjoyed the company and the character Aibo developed, resulting in a happier life with their companions.
In the future it will become possible to use more sophisticated technology to aid the older generations, because of the growing technological ‘touch’ of the elderly. One think that won’t change, in my opinion, is the pride and dignity of these individuals. When we look at the evolution of independence of an individual, we notice it’s a parabola. In the beginning of a human life, the parents do everything for the child. The older it gets, the more independent it becomes and wants to be. So the independence of the child grows until adulthood, where the grow rate decreases until a maximum level of independence is reached. The individuals stay at that maximum, but at a certain point in time, at a certain age, their level of independence will start to decrease again. For the person this becomes troublesome and he/she wants to maintain their previous level of independence. Not being able to take care of the daily hygienic tasks can be humiliating.
This shows that maybe it’s better to focus more on how we can let the elderly help themselves. By designing simple devices that allow those persons to regain their self-support we are helping them as well. However, we must again keep in mind that some help from social workers or nurses is more than just medical care. Nurses who provide services at home will have an extra social value. The elderly enjoy the company after being alone for some time. They enjoy the daily or weekly chat. If we were to replace this valuable persons by a piece of technology, we may be responsible for a further decrease in social contact of the patient.
There already exist some technological features which monitor a patient vitals and automatically sends this information to the hospital, where a computer program compares the data with previous measurements. When some irregularities occur, the patient’s physician will be contacted and (s)he will go visit the patient. This is a great piece of technology which has saved already many lives. It also helps the doctors because nowadays they have so much patients they can’t keep up with the visits. But still, a visit from the doctor is more than just a checkup, it’s an opportunity for the elderly to talk to somebody, to have some social contact. However the greatness of the above mentioned technology, we must make sure regular social contact is maintained.
There are a lot of factors to keep in mind when developing life aids. It will be a challenge to get rid of ‘over the wall engineering’ and investigate what the real wishes and needs are and what the implications of our technological developments will be.