Charlie Brooker’s hit show Black Mirror tells mostly dystopian stories of how technology can run amuck and seriously mess up our lives.
However, not every episode is necessarily negative. For instance, a happy ending of sorts was possible in the recent choose-your-own-adventure style episode Bandersnatch and back in Season 3, an episode called San Junipero explored the use of Virtual Reality (VR) in elderly and palliative care.
The thing that makes Black Mirror so effective is that its concepts are usually grounded in reality. In this article, we’ll take a look at VR and five other technologies that are changing aged care today.
San Junipero’s premise was grounded in reality. In 2016, our ACA Research Healthcare team conducted research for Medibank to understand the prevalence and impact of loneliness on Australians undergoing extensive care in hospitals. In parallel, Medibank launched Joy, a VR experience to help reduce and combat loneliness.
That same year, Blue Cross, which operates 33 aged care homes in Victoria, announced that it became the first aged care provider in Australia to offer VR to all of its facilities.
“Virtual Reality is the way of the future, an exciting way to enjoy new experiences or relive old ones,” Alan Lilly, CEO of BlueCross said. “We believe that this program will increase the wellbeing of all residents who take part.”
VR can also have benefits for EX as well as CX in aged care. Anglican Care, which operates aged care services throughout Hunter, the Central and Mid Coast regions, this year used VR training developed by Dementia Australia to help its staff better understand life with dementia.
The VR experience allowed the staff to explore a moment in time as dementia-sufferer ‘Edie’ to identify how best to support him to live well.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is probably the hottest topic in CX right now. Within the field of AI, we’re seeing chatbots deployed across a range of industries, aged care included.
This month, computer scientists at the University of Alberta announced that they are taking first steps towards creating chatbots that can express and respond to emotion during a conversation. One of the goals of their research is to create AI-powered companies that could help alleviate loneliness for seniors.
“We envision a device that’s emotionally intelligent, where an elderly person can say ‘I’m tired’ or ‘It’s beautiful outside,’ or tell a story about their day—and receive a response that carries on the conversation and keeps them engaged,” said Osmar Zaïane, co-author of the study and scientific director of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute.
Zaïane said that loneliness leads to boredom and depression, which causes an overall deterioration in health.
“Studies show that companionship—a cat, a dog, other people—helps tremendously,” he added. “The advantage for caregivers of a digital companion like this is it can also collect information on the emotional state of the person, noting if they are frequently feeling sad, for example.”
The global wearables market has seen significant growth over the past few years, doubling to $50bn since 2014, according to a recent report from independent market research firm IDTechEx.
The potential for wearables in aged care was recognised early by Australian company mCareWatch, which in 2012 developed a device after the father of the company's founders suffered a stroke.
The company’s latest device functions as a smart watch, mobile phone, SOS alarm and GPS tracker. It also connects to the company’s software platform to allow for customised medication and appointment alerts, GPS tracking, geo-fencing, non-movement alerts and biometric monitoring capabilities.
In another example, RMIT researchers have this year partnered with aged care provider Bolton Clarke to develop the CaT Pin, a wearable device that tracks a wearer’s conversation, sending alerts to family or carers at signs of social isolation.
The CaT Pin, which won the Telstra Designing for Ageing Well Challenge, works by monitoring baseline conversations and word count and then prompting social content when levels drop too low.
Like wearables, Internet of Things (IoT) devices present a range of potential applications and many aged care providers are already incorporating IoT technology to collect, process and transfer information between caregivers and residents.
For example, IoT technology can be used to enhance medical devices via technology such as smart pill bottles and sensors which can be placed in around aged care residences and in beds.
In 2016, Monash University developed the Super Sensor, a bundle of technologies including an infrared motion sensor as well as light, temperature and vibration sensors.
“Vibration sensors are a novelty we introduced because they can detect changes in the walking pattern of people or reduced movement of people, which may be due to some injury to an elderly person,” project lead Professor Ingrid Zukerman of the Clayton School of Information Technology said.
Zukerman said that other types of sensors can also be installed on the fridge to detect if someone is eating enough.
A more emerging technology is robotics. Sure, we aren’t quite at the point of having human-like robots indistinguishable from us, but progress is being made.
In 2014, Japanese mega-conglomerate SoftBank Group unveiled Pepper, a robot designed to serve as a medical worker, retail assistant, caregiver or just all-round pal.
Although Pepper cut his teeth in retail, he – and other robots like him – are now making inroads into Japan’s aged care facilities. Japan is known for its advanced technology and large ageing population, so the combination of the two makes sense.
Last year the Japan Times reported that Tokyo’s Shintomi nursing home now uses 20 different models of robots to help care for its residents.
“These robots are wonderful,” said 84-year-old Kazuko Yamada resident after a workout session with Pepper. “More people live alone these days, and a robot can be a conversation partner for them. It will make life more fun.”
Beyond nursing bots, there is also the potential for robotic exo-skeletons to help the elderly improve their strength and mobility. While that may sound again like sci-fi, it is something that researchers are working on.
#6 The Cloud
In many ways the cloud sits at the centre of all these advances. It is the thing that wearables and IoT devices connect to, and is where the “brain” of an AI system lives.
Looking at the EX side of things, it can also be a massive help in the realm of administration. Global company Epicor has developed a Senior Living Solution for operators of independent living, residential aged care and community care organisations.
The Epicor SLS is offered both in the cloud as a software-as-a-service solution or deployed on premises and has a range of features including a system for managing resident information, performing financial management and analysis, integrating third-party clinical care and medication management solutions.
Heaven is a place on earth
Black Mirror likes to take an idea that is reasonable based on today’s technology and then nudge it into the realm of sci-fi. In San Junipero, those close to death can do more than just enjoy virtual worlds, they can choose to “pass over” and live out eternity in a cloud-based “heaven” of total freedom.
While the ability to upload our entire consciousness to the cloud is something that remains beyond the realm of what is possible today – there is no doubt that technology is changing aged care in multiple ways.