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Can technology fill the elderly care gap? Care Home Funding Advocates follows the story.

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With the proportion of over-65s on the increase, Britain is facing a crisis when it comes to care of the elderly. Is technology the answer?

‘Because of my hips and knees, all my spring has gone. Once I am on the floor, I can’t get up, at all. I can’t raise myself. So I have to have my panic button. They come and unroll this big square thing, and push it under my seat, switch on the machine and it very gently lifts me. Once I’m up I can stand, but I can’t get up from ground level at all. I just have to have help, and they have been wonderful for me.’

 

I am sitting with Edith Garside in her neat Peak District bungalow. The room is colourful and warm, particularly so in contrast to the cold day outside. Mrs Garside is 90 years old and untouched by any mental deterioration. As we wait for one of her regular wardens to arrive, she is telling me about the care service, which she often uses. The button hangs around her neck like a piece of functional jewellery, and in the case of a fall or any other emergency, it can alert a warden within minutes. In itself it is not a complicated piece of equipment and has been around for some time, but it marked the beginning of the use of technology to prolong independent living.

In recent years there has been an explosion in technological innovation in the field of elderly care. Mrs Garside and her warden are, in their different ways, at the coalface of the looming crisis of how we are going to care for the elderly in our ageing society. We are facing a future where a shrinking workforce is going to have to support a growing population of older people. The number of over-65s in Britain stood at 15 per cent in 1985. By 2010 this had risen to 17 per cent – an increase of 1.7 million. It is projected that by 2035 those over 65 will make up 23 per cent of the population. A cursory glance at numbers like these explains why the race is on to find technological solutions to elderly care, motivated by a need both to improve services and to save costs.

Much of the technology in development can be broadly broken down into two camps. One is monitoring and surveillance, whereby electronic devices keep track of a person’s medical condition and automatically alert health care staff when intervention is required. Sensors can also be fitted into the home that will alert staff if, for example, someone is not in bed when they should be, a sign that something may have gone wrong.

The other main area of active research is assistive technologies, which can range from a simple device to help an arthritic hand turn on a tap, to a robotic machine that is able to spoon-feed an older person without the need for health care staff attention.

 

Care Home Funding Advocates can report that much of this technology is designed to be fitted into the home to allow independent living for as long as possible. According to Prof James Goodwin, the head of research for Age UK, ‘We are not far from the day when people routinely have their health monitored from home.’

On the face of it, prolonging independent living is a laudable aim, but some argue that it has the potential for abuse. Health care provision is a delicate balancing act between service levels and cost, and while many of these technologies can be used to improve the quality of older people’s lives, it can also be much cheaper to keep people in their homes rather than occupying hospital beds. Like the criticism once levelled at care in the community, some are concerned that it may be the right policy for the wrong reasons.

Dr Christine Brown Wilson, the programme director at the University of Manchester’s School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work, has an optimistic view of how these new technologies will be applied. She sees a future where technology will be used to perform the routine tasks, leaving staff more ‘quality time’ to spend with those in their care. ‘I think we have to realise that we are in charge of the technology,’ Brown Wilson, who has a background in practical nursing, says. ‘The technology doesn’t have to guide us; we have to guide the technology.’

Others though, such as Prof Noel Sharkey, an expert in the field of robotics at the University of Sheffield, warn of the potential for a future where cutting corners and costs leads to the elderly becoming little more than prisoners in their own homes, socially isolated and tended to largely by machines. ‘People will say, “Oh, that’s science fiction,”’ Sharkey says, ‘but it is not.’ He estimates that the technology will be there to allow such fiction to become a reality within a decade.

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