Tech for healthy ageing

by | Apr 11, 2021 | Mind

Summer was only starting when Paula Tinkler took a new direction to her career. Changes in what people do are quite common, but her transition was exceptionally fast. Only one week after making up her mind, she was in Workington, England, learning to be a carer. However, only one month later, she was ready to go and work as a trained carer.

Her training was not only fast. It also took place in the comfort of her house. She went through recruitment via e-mail, her assessment and interviews were done online, and her training was completed digitally.

The company that took her in was Cera Care, based in the UK, and specialized in providing tech-enabled care without operating or owning a care home. What this company does is managing and arranging home care along with families making use of a digital platform. In this online service, customers find a caregiver match available in the care provider system to get assistance from them. When patients need mobilization, the company sends an Uber to drive them to their appointments. It uses the same method to provide pharmacy and prescription fetching services.

The idea started back in 2016 with an investment of over £20 million ($26 million), and now it hires Tinkler and other caregivers for almost 500,000 monthly home visits.

This system of caregiver services is likely to grow at a fast pace in the near future. There is one adult older than 65 years for every 5 citizens in the European Union. These numbers are expected to grow in the following years, and the same is happening all over the world. Since 1980, the population of 60-years-and-older has doubled, and it is now near a billion people. It is expected to double once again by the year 2050.

This fact poses a serious challenge for caregiving models in the future. They need to be remodeled to continue providing healthy and independent lives to these future older adults. Cera Care is one of the companies preparing for the challenge by using technology to provide assistance for older adults.

All technology around these patients may contribute to the task. For example, hearing aids with fall detection technology can be used to monitor patients. A virtual butler named Alfred is an undershirt equipped with sensors to evaluate balance in older adults and follow up their exercises. And there’s also LEA (Lean Empowering Assistance), a specialized walker equipped with robotic technology to become virtual assistance and sometimes serving as a dance partner.

Our planet is ageing

The fact that remains is that the population of the world is slowly ageing. We’re growing older, and our life expectancy is now larger.

According to Cera Care chief and executive co-founder Ben Maruthappu, for every three people born today, one of them will live 100 years or longer. He says that the market for elderly care assistance is growing with a limited workforce and not enough care homes. Moreover, many patients do not want to leave their homes and prefer home care to live in residences.

Another technology developed by Cera is Martha. This one is designed for caregivers and functions as virtual assistance to help them in their day-to-day tasks. The technology is continuously evolving, as mentioned by Maruthappu. It was initially designed as a chatbot caregivers could use for advice. Still, it now has a more complex interface with a growing set of recommendations based on previously input information.

Cera continued growing, and in 2019 the company installed Lidar sensors in the patient’s home through its partnership with IBM. These sensors are useful to provide accurate information on the movement of home residents in their house, detecting a fall immediately to provide support 24/7 when it happens.

In Maruthappu’s words, Cera’s primary goal is to prevent hospitalization and predict the need for hospital stays based on the understanding that this may ultimately worsen the patient’s morbidity.

Still, not everything is positive about AI in healthcare applications. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics published in 2018 a warning brief about using AI for medical and healthcare purposes. They mentioned that this type of technology can potentially lead to privacy concerns, may contribute to social exclusion, and could reduce the transparency of clinical resolutions.

Healthy ageing

It is evident that our lifespan is now longer, but that’s not the end of it. Yes, the number of older adults over age 80 years is now increasing, but the number of older adults over age 90 or 100 years stays relatively stable in comparison. We live for a longer time, but that doesn’t mean we’re having good health and quality of life.

As we age, the risk of chronic disease increases, especially obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, respiratory disease, and neurodegenerative problems such as glaucoma and Alzheimer’s disease.  It is why we have developed our FREE Fitat60 App – just for you, let’s work together to reduce the risk of chronic disease. 

Our lifespan is measured by the number of years we live, but there’s also a health span that measures how many years we live without chronic health problems. What we want is a longer healthspan, and the UK government included a grand challenge in its industrial strategy for 2019, aiming to increase healthspan in five years by the year 2035. Similarly, California Life Company (Calico) has spent over $2 billion and seven years investigating new therapies aimed at achieving a healthier and longer life.

Medical solutions have also been considered. Studies in mice have found that senolytic drugs such as metformin and rapamycin can take out diseased cells and keep healthier tissues. But there are more straightforward ways to obtain better health and rejuvenation effects, according to Judy Campisi from California’s Buck Institute for Research on Ageing. She mentioned that exercising, keeping adequate social interactions, and maintaining a healthier diet are helpful measures, as well as keeping the mind active with a variety of intellectual challenges.

But who could provide this social interaction and intellectual engagement? As the population in working years is reducing, fewer people will be available to continue paying taxes, and fewer nurses, doctors, and therapists will be left for caregiving and health services.

As healthcare providing services shrink and people in need become more numerous, we need to find methods and alternatives to achieve more with less. Technology can be the answer to that particular challenge.

Mechanic aids

In 2018, Komp was awarded the Smart Ageing Prize in the UK. This is a tabled with only one button, designed for elders inspired by analog televisions. It gives older adults an easier way to enjoy video calls and share photos with friends and family.

And those who need more company than occasionally receiving a video call can also acquire one of many models of robotic company devices such as Pepper, a small android made in Japan and popular in Prague that entertains people in a social club named Life 90.

There’s also Paro, a small robotic pup you can find in many care centers around the world being cuddled by seniors as it wriggles and mews. Or we could talk about Carebot, a Japanese robotic pup designed for patients with dementia who do not realize they are taking care of a robot pup and not an actual animal.

Spain has also joined the trend, creating a robot under the Enrichme project. It is named Tiago, and it is designed to assist elderly people in their own homes. This model reminds patients of their medication schedules, appointments promotes exercise and helps users find their lost keys and other mislaid items. When this project’s trial came to an end, users missed this new friend, and one of them rearranged the furniture to fill the space where Tiago was.

Trialogue is another technology innovator company in France, run by its CEO Antonio Kung. Starting in 2016, this company ran a project to create new robots for older adults. After three years, two models were developed, including an emotional companion named Buddy and a walking assistant named Astro.

As a part of the project, a series of care home visits were arranged to instruct how to use the robot and obtain user feedback about their expectations and what they really needed. Kung mentioned that there’s still work to be done in that particular area. His research is now aimed at providing technology to meet the demands.

Astro was a fantastic idea, but users said it was too big. Buddy was completely different in that regard, but users mentioned that they preferred human features to relate to, as well as a conversational voice that feels natural and smooth. People want new robots with a more human interface.

Still, and even if human appearance is somewhat achieved by these companies, social isolation is not something a robot can solve. These are only facilitators and serve more as toys than real friends. As Kung noted, the ultimate robotic technology for elderly care may be found in a derivative of more conventional products and ideas.

Human relationships are fundamental to make connections, and that is where Tinkler and this new modality of caregiving enters. She mentions that she loves her job because it is enriching. She and other Cera Care members have experienced actual rewards to their home care in the form of neighbors clapping outside of the house, a cup of tea, or a simple word of thanks. Everything works to inspire them to keep going and offering the best they can.

There is a growing need for people with the same vocation as Tinkler. In the United States alone, around 2.5 million care workers will be required to meet the demands by 2025. That number goes up to 100,000 in Australia. There’s a similar shortfall in other developed countries.

A new type of workforce empowered by modern technology and undergoing online training and virtual assistants, telemedicine doctors, homes equipped with useful sensors, and smart robots as companions is the likely future we will experience. It is now starting to see the light of the day.

The world is getting older rapidly, and this technological change should not take long.

With all that in mind, here is a brief word from our resident PT, Fred, on how best to use your device and limit pain or injury to yourself long-term.

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