A look at an Ageing population

by Prof. Pascal Fallavollita, University of Ottawa

The number of seniors is projected to triple by mid-century, from 531 million in 2010 to 1.5 billion in 2050 [World Population Prospects, 2015]. By shifting our worldviews from fear to hope, we can see this demographic shift – and our place in it – as an opportunity for immense personal and collective growth and transformation. The dissemination of strategies to maintain the independence of seniors is of critical public health importance. It still remains unknown whether structured physical activity interventions can be successfully disseminated into community settings to benefit wider populations of seniors [Laussen et al., J Frailty Aging 2016]. Similar questions remain unanswered for the upkeep of healthy habits, specifically for seniors transitioning back home from convalescence programs or those in long-term residences. Health promotion information using novel technology represents a salient means through which promoters can cultivate positive health behavior change and maintenance. The messages communicated through technology serve as an essential component as they are often used to convey important information, resources, or tools that facilitate health behavior initiation and sustained engagement. Identifying the most effective way to communicate health promotion information on new technology is therefore of considerable importance to ensure that people not only understand the value of technology but also attend to the messages, connect with and internalize the information conveyed in them. For this, researchers should engage with seniors and explore motivating factors as well as barriers to healthy behaviors that can then be addressed through targeted strategies. The focus of health promotion strategies needs to take these factors into consideration and focus on a person’s abilities, as opposed to their disabilities. In other words, aspiration not rehabilitation. Caregivers and family members can play an integral role in the health and care of seniors, by providing valuable insight into the factors that motivate and discourage people from adopting new or modified behaviors. However, a one-size-fits-all approach will not be successful. This makes technological solutions in health care challenging, as they need to be both standardized by nature and personalized – flexible enough to accommodate different needs, interests, preferences and levels of knowledge. A final challenge is the lack of familiarity with technology; seniors do not have experience or knowledge regarding the use of technology particularly as to how it can be applied in a health care setting.

As such, developing mixed-reality technologies has positive implications for (1) caregivers (how they could help and interact more effectively with seniors), and (2) seniors (how it could contribute to their health, get them involved, and promote their autonomy). Mixed-reality technologies which use smart sensors and intelligent algorithms could collect and analyze seniors’ health data. By monitoring progress in physical activity and nutrition, serious gaming and education modules in technologies can be adapted accordingly for a specific patient which decreases the continuous workload of caregivers, especially when it comes to supervision. To corroborate this, the AGE-WELL Network in Canada was funded to focus on the development of emerging technologies and effective policies that will offer to seniors quality services that are appropriate for their needs, respect individual choice and are delivered in a timely, safe and effective manner, according to the best available evidence, expertise and experience. Family caregivers are essential in the delivery of palliative care, but they get little support. Often, they have to take time off work to care for a loved one, which may be a financial hardship. Many family caregivers are older themselves, and the burden of caring for a loved one can exacerbate stress and physical illnesses [A Policy Framework to Guide a National Seniors Strategy for Canada, 2015]. Second, mixed-reality technologies that enforce positive habits for seniors should be investigated, as proposed by both Italian and German Health System and Aging policy makers, who have the following aims: (i) strengthening of families as communities, (ii) working with motivation and in good health, doing qualified work, and (iii) ensuring autonomous life in old age [Italian National Institute of Care and Research on Ageing, 2015, German Center of Gerontology-Data Mapping Project 2015]. To conclude, mixed-reality technologies could undoubtedly promote independence liberating the constraints of caregiver and family assistance which would have a positive impact economically.

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