Everyone experiences impairments to their sight, hearing, cognitive powers and mobility as they get older: over 65s represent the largest group of disabled people.
Fortunately there is a growing range of assistive products that enhance the capabilities of older people and enable them to live more independently. Many assistive features are now found in mainstream consumer products.
Magnification systems help combat sight loss and enable people to continue reading despite poorer vision.
Modern hearing aids that eliminate background noise are essential to help people overcome hearing impairment, as are smartphone-based text relay services that turn voice into text for those who are profoundly deaf.
Technology can also assist people with dementia, safeguarding them by means of tracking systems and acting as a prompt, reminding them of the information they need to live independently. Voice recognition is a boon for those who can neither use a keyboard or push buttons.
Most people prefer to continue living in their own homes, if they can, rather than move into care institutions. Assistive technologies and sensors in the home that monitor people’s movements lead to an increased sense of safety and security at home and reassurance for relatives.
They can also play an important role in making the best use of scarcer manpower in a time of reduced budgets for social care.
Unfortunately, assistive technology is not always well understood by those involved with caring for older people. There is a lack of readily available information and not enough attention is paid to training care professionals in the application and management of technology.
Of course, technology is an additional cost for older people and although prices have been coming down in recent years more could be done in this area.
Some technology is available through Government schemes – wheelchairs and adapted cars, for example – but more needs to be done to make more assistive technology available free or at a low-cost.
Product and software designers must aim to follow universal design principles, including assistive features in products that are designed for everyone to use.
They must put themselves in the place of older people, simulating disabilities if need be, and testing their designs with older users.
Simplicity of design is the key to creating products that can be easily used by those who may not be familiar with technology. Designers must also bear in mind the need to keep costs as low as possible.
Developments are in the pipeline which could make life easier for many seniors.
Sympathetically designed care robots will augment human carers and provide round the clock attention for housebound older people. Driverless cars will keep others mobile for much longer, enabling older people to live more independent lives.
The widespread use of telecare systems to monitor and raise alarms will enable many more older people to live at home and lower the cost of their care.
At the same time all of these innovations must be carefully designed to avoid depersonalising and isolating the vulnerable people who use them.