Aging in Place: Optimizing Health Outcomes through Technology, Design and Social Inclusion

itsawrapOn October 27th 2016, the Centre for Elder Research hosted a symposium to celebrate the end of a successful 6-year, $2.3 million grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

The grant, titled, Aging in Place: Optimizing Health Outcomes through Technology, Design and Social Inclusion explored how businesses and service providers could design their services/products/process to better meet the needs of older adults aging in place.

The It’s a Wrap! symposium highlighted the research conducted by the Centre in collaboration with 14 small- and medium-sized businesses and explored some emerging trends in the area with talks from 5 professionals who shared their insights into how technology supports aging in place.

Keynote speaker Alex Mihailidis, PhD., P.Eng., the Scientific Director of the AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence, spoke about disruptive technology and its role in changing the current landscape of innovation. Alex described a challenging paradox that we are currently facing in Canada: the support needs of our growing, aging population are increasing, but the technological tools we have available to help us are underused by older adults because either they don’t support their needs, they are too expensive, they are not user-friendly, or, as in the case of some assistive devices, they are viewed as stigmatizing. Alex says we need to force new ways of thinking about technology and design; this is where the disruptive innovation (paired with a little bit of inspiration) comes into play. Some new technologies that are currently pushing that boundary include smart homes, driverless cars, advances in robotics and big data. Each of these new technologies has the potential to be adapted and/or customized to support a user’s unique needs and will certainly revolutionize the current innovation landscape. It’s pretty cool to think about what exciting things we’ll be able to do with technology in the coming years!

Robyn Kalda, a specialist in the use of technology for health promotion, focused on how we can use new technologies in health-promoting ways. Robyn pointed out that a large component of health promotion is feeling in control of health and lifestyle changes. From the perspective of technology, it is important to consider when devices (like the ever-popular ‘wearables’ for example) exist to give people control over their health versus when they are used to control people and their behaviours. This distinction has implications for the outcomes of health promotion strategies involving technology; we need to make sure the technology is having the right sort of impact on the user. The take away message from Robyn’s talk was when using technology for health promotion, either formally or even in your own life, think about:

1. Who was this technology designed for (i.e. is accessible for everyone?)
2. What is the evidence that it’s any good?
3. Does it give you control over your health/behaviour or does it take control away?

Something to think about before you buy that Fitbit for someone on your holiday shopping list…

John Helliker, the Director of Sheridan’s Screen Industries Research and Training Centre (SIRT) spoke more specifically about the opportunities for individual and social change using virtual and augmented reality technology. These technologies can have various applications in clinical and assistive living settings. Virtual reality allows the person interacting with it to have an immersive, first person perspective and experience a different reality, while augmented reality can enhance our understanding, and engagement with, the world around us by allowing us to access additional information or content. Think about the possibilities for using virtual or augmented reality to help people manage anxiety, phobias, depression or symptoms of dementia. Even more compellingly, virtual reality can also help to build empathy in friends, family, caregivers and health team members for individuals living with mental health issues or dementia by allowing them to experience first-hand these types of conditions. John believes that “the world is our oyster right now” with the development and use of this technology. You may have seen some people in your neighbourhood playing Pokemon Go in the last 6 months or so. Pokemon Go is a very successful example of augmented reality being used (in game form) by the general public.

Dr. Kelly Murphy, a Psychologist at Baycrest Health Services talked about a unique use of a technology more familiar and accessible to us all, the web-based app. Kelly walked attendees through the journey her team went through to develop and test a new app called ArtOnTheBrain. From the research literature, the Baycrest team knew that enjoyable and meaningful recreation improves well-being, and that there is something special about participation in the arts. It can often provide more holistic benefits than other recreation and leisure pursuits, and this is something that we’ve seen in our research at the Centre as well. So, ArtOnTheBrain was developed to provide an art-based experience that is user-led and involves learning about works of art and developing a dialogue with others. The goal, Kelly explained, was to develop a tool that could be part of a wider health toolkit for older adults. This app could promote social, emotional and spiritual well-being, and increases access to meaningful recreation, while still being accessible and sustainable and using technology that most people already have in their homes.

Mary Jane Carroll, a professor from Sheridan’s Bachelor of Interior Design program focused on the reality facing many older adults who are hoping to age in place, and that is the need for home modifications and the affordability of these renovations and assistive technologies. The greatest culprits? The majority of renovation costs come from remodeling the kitchen and bathrooms, widening hallways and making the front access point of the house more accessible.

Working with her students, Mary Jane has been running a Home Assessment research project to:

  1. Assess the ability of current homes to support aging in place and
  2. Explore the ways that design can help to provide affordable, practical solutions to combat the high cost of home modifications and accessible technologies.

Before you start that next renovation in your home or the home of a loved one, consider ways to support aging in place through your design choices – accessible homes benefit everyone who lives in them.

There you have it, a summary of the symposium, in case you missed it! While ‘it’s a wrap’ on this particular funding program, the Centre is currently engaged in multiple projects that build on the success of this grant to continue to conduct innovative, Lab to Life® research. Stay tuned to keep learning about our work, and thank you to everyone who contributed to the success of the Aging in Place grant!


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