Technology in Healthcare for the Aging Population: A Canadian Context
By Rayna Naik & Austin Mardon
Technology currently plays an increasingly important role in the lives of older adults, enabling them to age in place. Not only do new innovations in technology offer the aging population an opportunity to improve their health and quality of life, but they also generate more sustainable health solutions and new ventures for businesses (Age Well, 2019). Various technologies exist that aid in the daily life of all older adults, including emergency help systems, vital signs monitoring, fall detection systems and virtual care management platforms.
One of the most advantageous elements of using technology in health care is that it may assist in mitigating the impact of social isolation, as this is a prevalent issue among older adults. The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the value of technology in establishing meaningful connections with others and has also shed light on how vulnerable populations are disproportionately impacted by social isolation. For example, the Alzheimer’s Society has implemented a program called Companion Calls, in which trained volunteers regularly check in with older adults with dementia (Alzheimer Society, 2022). This enables them to remain socially active despite pandemic restrictions. Furthermore, integrating virtual care as a method of health care delivery can be more convenient for some older adults who do not have caregivers available to take them to appointments, as well as improve access to care for those with physical limitations. It may especially be useful to increase access to timely care for those living in rural and remote communities that already experience physician shortages.
However, there are various drawbacks to this as well. Virtual health, also referred to as telehealth, may not be able to fully replace in-person health care. This is because the severity of certain health conditions cannot be adequately treated over a virtual meeting and require more detailed examinations up close. Moreover, the learning curve for older adults who are not familiar with technology can potentially cause more challenges than benefits for some individuals. To mitigate this, it is crucial to provide older adults with the proper training and tools needed to make the most of technology. Finally, technological solutions are often associated with a hefty price tag, which may be a barrier to access for low-income individuals.
Aside from the use of health technology in daily life, there have also been strides in developing assistive technologies for more specific needs of older adults. The rest of this article will explore these in further detail. Assistive devices are tools that can decrease the burden of daily activities at home and foster increased independence among older adults. This article will explore examples of assistive devices in the following categories: vision, hearing, speech and cognition (Government of Minnesota, 2021). For individuals who are visually impaired, tools such as talking devices, screen reading software, text-to-speech systems and devices with large tactile buttons can be beneficial (Government of Minnesota, 2021). These devices are primarily used for activities of daily living and accessing important information (Government of Minnesota, 2021).
Furthermore, assistive devices for individuals who are hard of hearing can help them communicate with others, as well as aid in their activities of daily living. Assistive devices for this purpose typically convey information visually or amplify auditory information (The Clerc Center, 2014). These tools include personal amplification systems, vibrating alarm clocks, doorbells linked to flashing lights, and closed captioning systems (Government of Minnesota, 2021). In addition to vision and hearing devices, speech and communication devices can greatly support individuals who have speech disorders. Tools of interest include fluency assistance devices, artificial larynx, communication boards, speech output software and speech-generating devices (Government of Minnesota, 2021).
Moreover, age-related conditions such as stroke, dementia, Multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injury can affect an individual’s cognitive ability (Aderonmu et al., 2021). As a result, assistive technologies are often employed in the rehabilitation field to aid those who experience impairments. Cognitive assistive devices promote functional independence in older adults, as well as help reduce caregiver burden (Aderonmu et al., 2021). Common tools include memory aids, educational software, speech recognition, voice recorders, word prediction software and a digital personal assistant (Aderonmu et al., 2021). Memory aids enable individuals to recall information more efficiently, such as providing a reminder for the user to complete an activity (Aderonmu et al., 2021). Educational software allows individuals to strengthen their cognitive skills through completing self-paced modules, activities and exercises on a virtual platform. Speech recognition and voice recorders simplify tasks by eliminating the need to navigate a keyboard. Finally, digital personal assistants can assist in performing general daily tasks, such as helping a user stay on top of appointments, chores and medications.
In order to obtain an assistive device in Canada, an individual must contact a regulated healthcare professional such as their physician, occupational therapist or physiotherapist (Government of Canada, 2007). For some devices such as eyeglasses and hearing aids, an assessment by a healthcare provider must take place. Assessments by healthcare professionals are also recommended for those who believe they qualify for reimbursement for purchasing a costly assistive device, as most forms of reimbursement require a prescription (Government of Canada, 2007).
Overall, the use of technology in healthcare for older adults can greatly enhance their functional independence and quality of life, thus promoting better physical and mental health outcomes. Various forms of technology currently exist in healthcare, including tools that aid the general population of older adults with social isolation and activities of daily living, as well as those who experience more unique and specialized needs through the use of assistive devices. As the aging population in Canada continues to grow, it is vital to expand options to enable older adults to age in place, in the comfort of familiar surroundings.
Aderonmu, J. A., O’Reilly, N. & Jackson, K. (2019). Assistive Technology: Cognition Products. Physiopedia. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Assistive_Technology:_Cognition_Products
Age Well. (2019). The Future of Technology and Aging Research in Canada. https://agewell-nce.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Booklet_8_Challenges_English_5_final_PROOF_rev.pdf
Alzheimer Society. (2022). Client Operations. Volunteer Opportunities. https://alz.to/volunteer/
The Clerc Center. (2019). Assistive Technologies for Individuals Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. Gallaudet University. https://agewell-nce.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Booklet_8_Challenges_English_5_final_PROOF_rev.pdf
Government of Canada. (2007). Seniors and Aging - Assistive Devices. Health Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/healthy-living/your-health/lifestyles/seniors-aging-assistive-devices.html
Government of Minnesota. (2021). Guide to Assistive Technology. https://mn.gov/admin/at/
About the Author
Rayna Naik is a 4th year health sciences student at Western University, completing an honours specialization.