Technology and aging – where to?

Sensors that are swallowed or woven into clothes. These are two of a wide range of technical solutions that may be reality for the elderly and the personnel who care for them. Because technology will play an increasing role – this was the conclusion of the Aging & Society conference, two days in which 150 researchers met to discuss various perspectives of aging. 

Sensors that are swallowed or woven into clothes. These are two of a wide range of technical solutions that may be reality for the elderly and the personnel who care for them. Because technology will play an increasing role – this was the conclusion of the Aging & Society conference, two days in which 150 researchers met to discuss various perspectives of aging.

Many elderly people in Sweden now wear a unit on their wrist that can raise the alarm if they fall at home. But the future for elderly people may be far more high-tech than this. On the second day of the conference Mark Hawley, professor at the University of Sheffield, presented some of the technical aids that are available or under development to facilitate everyday life for the elderly. These include robots that collect dirty washing or carry shopping, dispense medicines or feed an elderly person. Mark Hawley himself is involved in a project developing a bedside table that moves around the apartment and comes to a person in bed. It can also be used as a walking frame.

“When we hear the word ‘robot’, many of us see the violent robots depicted in the cinema, and this is, of course, the wrong image. Most of us already have robots at home, and we are more used to them than we imagine. Advanced technology will be a part of life for the elderly – the question is how far the process will go,” says Mark Hawley. 

The next slide in his powerpoint presentation appears on the screen in the lecture theatre at Campus Norrköping. It contains a quotation from Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’.”

“We don’t even know what technology can help us with. But it’s clear that the elderly must be involved with the development of technology intended for them,” he concludes.

Robots – no substitute for humans

New technology, however, brings new challenges and questions. Conference participant had the opportunity to question Mark Hawley during the morning session of the conference, and many of them took the chance. Most questions dealt with the relationship between the roles of people and those of robots, and whether the use of robots will reduce the amount of human contact in the lives of the elderly. The answer to that question comes from Mark Hawley’s belief that robots can never become a substitute for humans. Annika Taghizadeh Larsson, head of division at the National Institute for the Study of Ageing and Later Life at Linköping University, comes into contact in her research with people who receive round-the-clock personal assistance. She approaches the question from a different viewpoint, and suggests that certain groups prefer periods without human contact at certain times of the day.

Wushi Zhou, doctoral student at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh takes the opportunity to quiz Mark Hawley. She is interested in the role of technology in the elderly care of the future, and believes that the international perspective of the conference is its strength.

“Since so many different countries are represented I can gain insight into how technology is being used in many different countries. My country of origin, China, lies far behind many other countries in this respect. I want to learn what other countries have learned so that I can eventually take this knowledge back with me to China,” she says.

Stronger research into elderly care

Further topics discussed on Friday were how society can help the elderly to live safely at home and the role of migrants in elderly care in Europe. Andreas Motel-Klingebiel, professor in ageing and later life at Linköping University and one of the conference organisers, hopes that the conference will contribute to strengthening research into aging, and contact between researchers becoming closer.

“I hope that we have been able to highlight the opportunities and difficulties facing a society that is undergoing rapid aging, and how to meet the challenges,” he says.

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