Elderly care and the internet of things

Last week I took part in a workshop run by DIOTTO an EU-funded project on the use of connected products in elderly care. Some real issues came up which I thought I’d share. It’s important to note we were mainly looking at the use of connected hardware to enhance the relationship between carers and an elderly person who is still independent and living at home.

1. Defining “seniors”.
Louisa and Marcel pointed out that during most of your work life you are categorised and targeted (by Acorn and others). But once you hit 60, you are a “senior” which is unhelpful. Profiling on the basis of technology uptake (do they have an iPad or not) is also unhelpful. We need to be granular about designing for an ageing population which is diverse and often has disposable income in the early years of retirement.

2. Transitional technologies
What kinds of technologies do we need to design that a person will find useful using at 60 and will help them in their 70s and 80s? Noone wants to be “tracked” while they are independent, but once that first fall happens, smart environments may save your life. Is personal data the price to pay to be let to live an independent life in the later stages of life? This is a hard problem to tackle as it means admitting we may be in need of help. Noone wants to think that way, people will often avoid buying a wheelchair even when they need it, because admitting that you’re at “that stage” is an awful blow to your pride. As designers we need to be sensitive to the fact that people may never have a good relationship with our product.

3. Types of care
The word “carer” is misleading. It treats family, friends and healthcare professionals in the same way. Their impact on the life of an ageing person is very different. Many older people suffer from extreme loneliness and isolation, especially men. On Radio 4 the other day, professional carers were interviewed and shared their distress at visiting a patient for only a few minutes a day. That person looked forward to that conversation all day. These are realities of medical support, but we know that a strong social support makes people more resilient.

4. Getting old
Noone likes to think of themselves as “old”. My 79 year old grandmother who sadly has stage 2 Alzheimer’s disease and thinks her care home is full of “old people” so she doesn’t socialise with them. We’ve been successful at stigmatising the wisest people in our communities to the point even they don’t want to own up to it. The Homeshare scheme is brilliant but can we build opportunities for knowledge exchange like the Amazings while using emerging technologies? What will the 50 year olds of today, with their wearable tech, look like and act like in 20 years? Will they be naturally more digitally social? Will their use of technology make up for day to day face to face interactions? Will they be better at staying connected with their families around the world?

These are all questions we should be answering to as designers. Technology has a role to play but perhaps it’s a more subtle one than technologists realise. A good old user-centered approach should dictate what gets designed. As a result we may find that sensors and connected products are best placed as touch points of new services as opposed to the soul focus of design.

By designswarm

Blogging since 2005.

1 comment

  1. Hey Alex, I met the people behind “House Of Memories” recently, a really moving project co-created by Liverpool Museums and the Merseyside NHS Trust… essentially, an app that lets dementia sufferers and they carers reminisce using material from local museums and libraries. There’s a lot in there to be learned about the very human-centric approach to addressing a gnarly social and health problem.

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