Professor Lori Hand appeared a little irked at the image of a self-driving vehicle laden with kids as it appeared on the screen at the Successful Ageing Symposium in Tauranga this week.

“There is a myth that older people won’t use technology,” she told delegates. It is a myth perpetuated by companies, marketing agencies and the media, as they continue to put a youth-centric spin on everything, despite a growing ageing population.

Lori, Global Business Services Public Sector Leader for IBM, was one of the speakers at Supa-NZ’s one -day event, which explored ways of building a more age-friendly society.

Lori looked specifically at the role of technology in this mission, bringing to the audience an array of fascinating research projects as evidence.

Self-driving vehicles were one such example. And the Christchurch self-driving electric vehicle initiative led by Ohmio Automation proves that it isn’t so far away from a more ubiquitous presence in our city centres. What’s more, IBM’s version of the self-driving vehicle is constructed from component parts that can be 3D-printed.

The questions from the floor were as predictable as they were pertinent. When can we get these driverless cars? How will they be funded? How will they work in our community?

Lori acknowledged that navigating bureaucracy and legislation is difficult when it comes to integrating new technology. She hinted that regional councils might have more success in gaining traction with introducing initiatives such as self-driving vehicles, for example.

Lori Hand

As for cost, Lori says that while the costs of cutting edge technologies will likely always remain high, as newer iterations emerge, the costs will likely come down.

One such example was the use of virtual reality headsets, which can allow residents in care homes to take virtual trips to places both exotic and familiar. This technology recently featured at the New Zealand Aged Care Association Excellence in Care Awards.  Oceania’s Lady Allum Rest Home’s finalist video entry of their virtual reality initiative moved some of the audience to tears as they witnessed residents overcome with emotion at seeing grandchildren and places they’d always dreamed of visiting through the help of virtual reality headsets.

Sensor technology was another of Lori’s examples. In a pilot project IBM partnered with Italian rest home Avamere, installing sensors like motion detectors in corridors, flush-detecting sensors in toilet tanks, and sensors to detect bed movements, to name a few. The sensors look for patterns in residents’ behaviour and alert nursing staff when something deviates from the norm.

Lori described another partnership, this time between IBM and Rice University in Texas, which looked at how robotics could assist with the health and wellbeing of older people. Robot MERA (which stands for Multi-purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant) uses facial recognition and speech recognition to help residents with health-related questions.

Robots, sensors, virtual reality and driverless cars – despite the growing evidence base to support these techy initiatives it still feels like we are some way away from having them in our daily lives.

Yet Lori believes they are a necessary intervention to help with one of the most significant emerging risk factors: loneliness. She points out that a person’s loneliness can affect those around them, particularly families and caregivers. And at a macro level, it has negative implications for social and economic outcomes.

“Loneliness is almost always associated with some form of loss,” she says. Whether it is social loss, loss of mobility, loss of cognitive ability – these all contribute to people feeling lonely.

The Endeavour Foundation – the company behind the virtual reality initiative – works to the premise that older adults want to participate in social events, but they can’t because there are barriers. And technology can help remove those barriers.

But there are problems with introducing technologies – and these aren’t limited to cost and red tape.

Lori says technology companies have a tendency to create oversimplified solutions for older people. She says customization and personalisation needs to take priority over simplification.

“If something doesn’t work for you, why would you use it? We market to the younger generation. Why do we give older adults a generic experience that’s not relevant to them?”

Lori says it needs to be collective effort too in order to leverage the successes of pilot projects, which are typically small siloed activities. Cost-effective scalability is key.

“There’s no single organisation that can solve the problems of loneliness on its own,” she says.

“We need to engage and integrate with many stakeholders including infrastructure providers, government agencies, healthcare and advocacy organizations.”

Ultimately it’s about working collaboratively to understand the end-user and how to deliver customised solutions that meet their needs in a cost-effective, scalable way. There is certainly more to be done before older people in our communities see the benefits of technology. But it won’t be long before driverless cars, robots and other exciting techy initiatives are part of our daily lives.

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