Most of the readers of this blog can look forward to a healthy and long(ish) life. The likely quality of that life is, of course, open to debate and depends on a number of factors. One of these factors is concerned with the accessibility and usability of many of the technologies through which we’ll be able to keep engaged (and, yes, that does include working into our older age). Another factor relates to our use of sometimes specialist technologies that can help us with our ailing bodies or minds.
But to reach that ultimate goal of a healthy and engaged later life we must navigate to aspects of older age that relate firstly to how we survive and challenge some of the pervasive and ageist social norms; and secondly how we use our collective strength within what is dubbed the ‘grey market’ to access the goods and services (including technologies) that we want.
The context is an interesting one. We are all, of course, victims to, on the one hand, the predilections of governments (whether central or local) who shape the frameworks of our lives; and, on the other hand, to the imaginations and enterprise of designers, manufacturers and purveyors of the goods and services that we, as consumers or users, are offered. Our UK government has, of course, a mandate that ranges, shall we say, from 36.7 to 51.9%. And to be fair, despite the vagaries of our democratic system, things have generally worked out in a way where, when we buy or use technologies, we as consumers are properly protected. What we are less protected against is the way that technologies aimed at older people (or services based on those technologies) can be designed or configured in a patronising ‘doing good for the old folk’ kind of way.
Telehealth and telecare technologies are an interesting case in point. The telecare boxes and services, while often better designed than they were, hark back to social alarms and the idea of responding to ‘emergencies’ where, for example, an older person may fall and be unable to get up. I do not, by the way, mock this. Falls are a particular scourge with often dire consequences in older age that we would all wish to avoid. But what is largely missing is an appreciation that, with the advent of broadband and smart (often mobile) devices, we have the technological tools to enable us to escape from the narrow cul-de-sac that is too often the locus of social alarms and telecare. Telehealth (or rather the broader conception of telehealth) provides the better option because services that use at least some of the technologies are less concerned with what they do for the ‘old folk’; rather they are concerned with how their benefits might be harnessed by consumers of all ages … giving us access to the wider world, helping us to manage whatever ailments befall us, and keeping us engaged in our families, our communities, our work and much more.
In the world of health and wellbeing this moves us away from thinking about service ‘delivery’ (a one-way process we tend to think of in the context of pizzas and childbirth) towards healthcare ‘provision’ which at least allows for the notion of us being involved in managing our health. The technologies we use, therefore, might be specialist (like a hearing aid or a pacemaker) … but might (and should) also carry the potential to link us to that wider world and, therefore, afford us benefits to our health that pills can rarely give. Designers of products and services please take note.
And so, for twenty-first century technologies with an ageing population in mind, what are our reference points? The pursuit of ‘design for all’ approaches for sure – hopefully associated with emerging norms that recognise older people as equals and as major contributors to the social and economic lives of our communities. And where shall we look for enlightenment? Let’s try the European Union (remember them?) where inclusion and accessibility for products and services are touchstones for a healthier future within both current and planned legislation and regulatory frameworks.