Unprecedented opportunities offered by technology to support older adults and caregivers
Canada’s seniors are growing in number and living longer, as the country moves toward “super-aged” status, where more than 20 per cent of the population will be over 65, and more Canadians than ever are living to the age of 85 and beyond. How will millions of Canadians maintain their health and independence as they get older?
AGE-WELL, Canada’s technology and aging network, is developing technologies, services, policies and practices that improve the quality of life of older adults while supporting caregivers, easing pressures on the health-care system and generating social and economic benefits for the country.
“There are unprecedented opportunities offered by technology to help older adults remain active, healthy and safe within their own homes and communities,” says Alex Mihailidis, scientific director and CEO of AGE-WELL, which started four years ago under the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence program. The organization has become a model for the “co-creation” of technologies through the active involvement of older adults and caregivers as well as industry, community, government and academic partners and a new generation of Canadian researchers and entrepreneurs.
Dr. Mihailidis, a biomedical engineer, started looking into technology-based solutions to support healthy aging as a graduate student in 1996, after a chance encounter with a man whose wife had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Mihailidis designed a smart-home system called The COACH that uses sensors to offer prompts for the various steps involved in self-care routines such as handwashing and dressing.
“At the first conference where I presented my research, someone asked, ‘What’s the point? These people are old, they have a progressive disease, why develop technologies to support them in their own homes?’” Dr. Mihailidis recalls.
The reality is that most people want to age in place. In a new Environics Research survey of more than 2,000 Canadians over the age of 50, commissioned by AGE-WELL, 97 per cent of respondents identified “being independent at home” and “being able to live where you want” as factors contributing to quality of life.
Importantly, the survey found that people see technology as a way to achieve this. Over three-quarters of respondents agreed that technological advancements can help older adults stay safe, independent and living in their own homes longer, and help reduce social isolation. A significant majority (seven in 10) agreed technology can help older people stay active and manage their health better as they age.
“Canadians see technology playing an important role in support of their health and wellness as they get older,” says Dr. Mihailidis, noting that today The COACH adapts to the user’s cognition level through artificial intelligence and robotics.
AGE-WELL is advancing Canada’s AgingTech sector, with more than 250 researchers at 42 universities and research centres across the country and almost 400 industry, government and non-profit partners. More than 4,700 seniors and caregivers are involved. From smart-home systems to remote therapies and wearables, some 100 products are being developed across the network and privacy, ethical and regulatory issues are being addressed. AGE-WELL also accelerates innovation by supporting 35 startups that are commercializing much-needed products.
“These are real-world solutions,” says Mimi Lowi-Young, chair of the AGE-WELL board of directors, the former CEO of the Alzheimer Society of Canada and an original architect of the country’s national dementia strategy. She is driven by personal experience: her mother had vascular dementia while her father struggled to care for her.
“What we could have done for them both if we knew then what we know today,” Ms. Lowi-Young says. “We can further tap the potential of technology to improve the quality of people’s lives if they’re healthy and if they’re not.”
Such technology is moving quickly through the pipeline under AGE-WELL’s pioneering transdisciplinary and user-centred approach, says Thomas Hadjistavropoulos, an AGE-WELL researcher who is a clinical psychologist and Research Chair in Aging and Health at the University of Regina.
“I have come to believe that some of the greatest solutions to the problems of aging are more likely to come from technology and engineering than from health sciences,” says Dr. Hadjistavropoulos. He co-leads an AGE-WELL project developing technology to assess pain in people with severe dementia, with a prototype expected to be ready for field testing in a few months.
Making such products practical and useful is critical, says Dr. Mihailidis. AGE-WELL recently announced a partnership with Best Buy Canada, which, as a leader in technology distribution, is well-positioned to make innovative solutions available to benefit older adults and caregivers.
“Best Buy choosing to partner with us supports the model that AGE-WELL has developed here in Canada – and that we can show to the rest of the world – of how you can start to deliver these technologies.”
For more stories from this feature, visit globeandmail.com