Assistive Technology (1) – how can it help in an ageing world?

There are all kinds of technology – digital technology seems to be taking over the world. Transport technology can get us where we want to go faster (but also contributes to traffic jams) and, in planning for an ageing world, we often hear talk about “assistive” technology.

What is it? And what can it do for us?
The World Health Organisation defines assistive technology (AT) as:
An umbrella term for any device or system that allows an individual to perform a task for which they would otherwise be unable to do or increases the ease and safety with which the task can be performed.
In that case AT includes walking sticks, which have been around since time immemorial. But someone must have realised that putting extra little legs on a walking stick helped people to be steadier – improved safety- and we have seen the evolution of “walkers”, with frames, panniers and built-in seats – great for getting about when the legs don’t work as well as they used to.walking stick frame
I don’t know whether a reclining chair with a foot rest could be defined as AT (although I look forward to mine at the end of the day), but tipping chairs certainly increase the ease of getting up.tipping chairBut what people often think of as assistive technology are more high-tech gadgets. These may be active – I do like the idea of a disk which cleans the floor (and provides something for adventurous cats to ride on). floor cleanerThey may be passive, in that they monitor activities and well-being, even though they are incredibly “smart”. The Teddy bear has a sensor which is linked into a screen in the nurse’s station in a rest home or hospital. This helps the nurse to monitor the older person in case of falls, etc. It can alert staff to unexpected changes and record answers to questions. Yes, you could call it a robot.

teddy bearWhat about a therapeutic robot in the form of a baby harp seal, called Paro, which responds to its name and being stroked, moves its tail and flippers and reacts by opening its eyes and moving its face toward the sound of a voice? Paro can show surprise, happiness and anger, and will cry if it is not receiving sufficient attention.


Professor Wendy Moyle, from the Griffith Health Institute’s Centre for Health Practice Innovation in Australia, reports that her robot seal and prototype Teddy bear have achieved incredible results with people in reducing symptoms of agitation. Both are used with older people to reduce stress, anxiety and social isolation.
In Japan, beds have been developed which incorporate automated toileting and washing systems and others that can be separated and turned into wheelchairs. Electronic toilets can incorporate health monitors. The HRS-I system monitors health by capturing data – such as electrocardiograph signals and body surface temperature – and then transmitting that data to a mobile phone or a PC where a health professional or family member can access it remotely.

La Trobe University and the global electronics firm, NEC Corporation, have developed ‘social robots’ who/which (?) can talk, sing, dance, play games, tell the weather and read the newspaper and even have names – Charles, Sophie, Matilda and Jack. They are the first of their kind to be used therapeutically for mild dementia sufferers.
How does all this make you feel?
Next time I will leave aside the whizz-bang items and talk about usefulness and ethics.


About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
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