Assistive Technology (2) – A lot more than just technology

Uses of modern assistive technology
Electronic devices now being developed – especially in Japan –certainly have the potential to improve quality of life for older people with disabilities and could extend their independence. As well as health monitors and “Pill Pets” which provide reminders when it’s time to take a pill or go for a check-up, there are practical housekeeping robots, which can clean the floors, load a dishwasher and do a load of laundry – even just pick something up off the floor for those whose mobility is limited. Voice activated commands are becoming commonplace with digital devices.

Communication devices can help to fend off loneliness. I have already mentioned robot pets for emotional care. More elaborate robots – like Meccano’s Spykee (yes, the people who made those old-fashioned construction toys) – have wi-fi and Skype capability. They can see, hear and speak, take pictures and make videos. This helps people keep in touch with family and friends all over the world. They can also provide environmental security and contact health services in case of emergency.

Many of these technologies can help to reduce the workload of family carers and reassure them about the safety and security of older people, not to mention reducing the expense of elder care.
There have been claims that robots could deliver a higher standard of care than poorly skilled care workers in residential homes and could standardise care. Managing incontinence in older people might be preferable to human care and make the job less onerous. Perhaps you have seen “exo-skeleton” suits, powered by a system of motors or hydraulics, in action films, but they exist in reality. They have military uses, to add to soldiers’ natural strength, letting them lift seemingly impossible loads and move at incredible speed. In civilian areas, similar exoskeletons could be used to help firefighters and rescue workers survive dangerous environments. But, less dramatically, exoskeleton technology can be used in eldercare, allowing nurses and carers to lift and move bed-bound residents safely.

But there are practical considerations
Using complicated technology requires special training and supervision if high standards of safety and care are going to be achieved and maintained. How acceptable will robotics be among care workers?

Robots may be extremely helpful, but can they substitute for personal contact, which is a vital component of psychological, and therefore physical, health? A poorly skilled carer needs training and monitoring, not removing altogether. Would we be restricting the social interaction experience of isolated older people even more if we substituted machines for the touch and voice of another human being? Robots can be a bit scary. Not everyone is as comfortable as some Japanese seniors when it comes to the idea of robots in their daily lives.

Then there are ethical considerations
Consider this –
A 90 year-old lady with dementia is prone to wandering at night, putting her in danger of hypothermia and other dangers. As she opens her front door a voice says “Go back to bed, Mum, everything is all right.” It is not her daughter, but a recording of her daughter’s voice. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Surely it is good that the lady is prevented from wandering out into the cold and darkness. But it is deceptive – her daughter is not there. Is that ethical?

Acceptance of sophisticated new technology and its capacity to deliver benefits may depend on the extent to which ethical and privacy issues are seriously considered. These must be given high priority, respecting the choices and autonomy of older people, allowing their voices to be heard in decision-making which affects them, and protecting people who are especially vulnerable or who have special needs. So we are left with many questions. Here are a few –

• How can we ensure basic safety (which includes the prevention of injury as well as responding rapidly in emergency situations) and assistance with daily living while also protecting privacy?

• How acceptable is the monitoring of daily social interactions and patterns of movement? In what situations and in relation to which older people can such monitoring be ethically applied? How will appropriate levels and types of monitoring be defined?

• What are the special requirements in relation to people with dementia?

• How will personal electronic devices be integrated with environmental control systems and how much control will the users have over these systems?

• What is the role of informal caregivers/professional carers in relation to these systems? What information and training do they need and how will they receive it?

Don’t let us allow the whiz bang technology carry us away without some deep consideration of human feelings and rights.

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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