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Smart technology eases aging in place

Good news for seniors who want to stay on in their residences even though their health is declining

Exactly where is the “place” in the oft-repeated phrase “aging in place”? Depends on who is using the word. To the federal government, it means a person’s home. For some provinces, the “place” is their community. Ontario’s Aging at Home Strategy focuses on keeping seniors in their own homes for as long as possible. It does, however, make reference to aging in one’s place of choice as well.

“Some people might choose, and might choose wisely, if they’re isolated and don’t have the support at home, to go into a retirement home,” says Dr. Mike Sharratt, head of the Research Institute for Aging (RIA). When individuals suffer from visual or hearing impairment or cease to be able to keep up with the demands of home ownership, moving into a retirement residence can make good sense.

RIA, an independent institute affiliated with the University of Waterloo, has researchers working on projects designed to improve seniors’ quality of life. With funding from Ron Schlegel, owner and operator of seniors’ homes, its research and training programs are directed at seniors in both long-term care and retirement residences.

Seniors who make the retirement residence choice hope to stay well enough to remain in this new home for some time. For retirement residence managers, aging in place is all about providing services, including physical and cognitive activities that are adaptable to the residents’ needs. It’s about maintaining consistency in the lives of these individuals so they know that regardless of how their needs may change, where they live won’t.

Many residences already provide a continuum of care. Certain barriers keep others from providing necessary services, however. That’s where technology can help.

High-tech, low-tech, smart-tech: we really have unprecedented access to technologies. In Halifax, Shannex Parkland Retirement Living uses simple low-tech alternatives, such as level walkways and senior-friendly designs. Says Alan MacPherson, vice-president of operations, “Simple and proven things can be as beneficial to a client as the latest electronic products.” No slouch on the high-tech side either, Shannex has integrated computerized central production kitchens into its campuses in addition to on-site restaurant-style kitchens and dining rooms.

Software pilots
At Amica, Nicole Bergman, corporate manager of its Wellness & Vitality program, explains how the company uses computers with larger screens for visually impaired seniors: “We have done pilots of particular software that overlays on Microsoft Word and really simplifies how to access email and surf the Internet.” Amica’s building designs incorporate safety and security technology. “We’re constantly monitoring the environmental conditions for the comfort of the residents – including heating,” she says.

Video games have their place too. According to Matt Ryan, senior supervisor of communications and advertising for Nintendo of Canada, “Nintendo didn’t actively pursue seniors. It’s a trend that’s happening across the world. Seniors are embracing Wii technology – especially Wii Sports and Wii Fit.” Nintendo’s Brain Age series is also gaining momentum. It’s supposed to help improve mental acuity and sharpen memory. Nintendo is careful not to make any health claims but is aware of the buzz surrounding seniors’ use of Wii games. Indeed, at the North American launch of the Brain Age series, the company partnered with the Alzheimer’s Society.

Reductions in resident turnover make aging in place good for business. “We promote AIP by maximizing resident independence and providing services to accommodate the resident’s changing needs,” says Neila Curtin, senior marketing manager at Community Lifecare. “We also recognize the costs of resident turnover: room refurbishment (carpet, paint, etc.), room turnover delays and the costs involved in attracting new residents through marketing and advertising.”

Aging in place allows for the consistency and preservation of resident-staff attachments. This is good for residents, and by extension, it’s good for the retirement home. Anything that improves resident care, reduces staff burdens and keeps staff committed to the client and residence is a winning combination for all.

Smart technology can help. “We use non-invasive monitoring and computer modelling techniques to generate real-time alert responses,” says Jill Wein, director of business development at Independent Care Canada. “In urgent cases, say a fall, an alert is dispatched to a nurse for immediate action. Other alerts might indicate socialization or wellness changes that may not require immediate attention. These would be logged and resolved through automatic email notifications.”

Clearly aging in place is the ideal option for individuals and can be for residences and their staff. Although not intended as a magic-bullet solution or a substitute for human interaction, technology can eliminate many barriers and allow us to truly enter an age-friendly era.

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