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  • Willow Kang

Opinion | What Assistive Technology Cannot Do Humans Must

According to estimates by the U.N, 1 in 6 people in the world will be aged 60 years or over by 2030, and the number of people aged 80 years over is expected to triple between 2020 to 2050. The world is facing a rapidly aging population. Elderly people face different challenges from the yin many areas of life, and countries will also have to adapt their social and healthcare systems to cater to this shift in demographic.

The most obvious challenge faced by elderly people is deteriorating health. Approximately 4.75 million people worldwide have dementia, a chronic cognitive disability. Dementia hinders a person’s ability to retain information, think, and make decisions. Many more elderly people are also encumbered by sensory impairments. Sensory impairments, such as vision and hearing, are extremely common among older people over the age of 70. Both sensory impairments and dementia interfere with their daily lives, making it increasingly difficult for the elderly to live without any form of assistance. Besides cognitive and sensory health problems, a frailer body may cause the elderly to be more susceptible to falls and other physical illnesses. More than 50,000 deaths are recorded from stumbling in the senior population every year.

Up until recently, the main providers of assistance for the elderly came from caregivers. In America, 22.3% of adults aged 18 to 69 report providing care or assistance to elderly friends or family members regularly. These caregivers juggle work and caretaking, and for many, caregiving affects their work life, with one in three caregivers providing 20 or more hours per week of care. Caregivers may also experience mental disorders from care work. For example, among carers of stroke survivors, 40.2% have depressive symptoms, according to a 2017 study by the Institute of Mental Health and the National University of Singapore. But while caregivers are fallible forms of assistance, increasing numbers of senior citizens are also living and dying alone.

12 million American adults aged 65 or older live alone. The factors that lead seniors to make this decision are diverse, but the most commonly cited reason include widowhood and a desire to maintain independence. Without the presence of an available caretaker, seniors thus turn to other forms of assistance. This time, assistance comes from the myriad of advancements in assistive technology. Assistive technology was first invented to help disabled people work a way around their disabilities. Since some of the problems that seniors face are similar to those that disabled people experience, assistive technology has also been developed to help elderly people cope effectively with the burdens that old-age brings.

In nursing homes, novel technologies are rapidly being adopted to make the nursing home a safer and more comfortable environment for elderly people. In an aged-care facility in Kebun Baru, Singapore, cameras and sound sensors monitor the elderly around the clock, equipped with advanced AI technology capable of detecting falls and distress. This video system uses silhouettes instead of actual images to protect the privacy of elderly people. This video system eliminates the need for constant human monitoring and allows the them to adapt to old age while maintaining their independence. Other gadgets that help the seniors in their daily lives include AI-powered wheelchairs and programmable kitchen appliances rigged with motion sensors.

But assistive technology is not always a one-size-fits-all solution. Assistive technologies come with several barriers of their own. The first barrier to the widespread adoption of assistive technology, is cost. Assistive devices come with various price tags on the market. A simple eating utility with special hand grips can cost as little as $3, while more complex integrated systems can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Assistive technology may be able to solve the problems of financially-able elderly people, but the same cannot be said for seniors with lower incomes. In the public sphere, more governments are also turning to assistive technology to make public spaces more disability-friendly. Nevertheless, governments still find it difficult to acquire the funding needed to install these devices.

Even after the purchase of these devices, the elderly are still required to possess the skills needed to operate these technologies. Technological literacy is steadily becoming a growing concern among the elderly population, due to their struggle to keep up with today’s breakneck pace of technological development. The technologies that the elderly remain clueless about are the same technologies used in assistive devices, and understanding how to carry out simple operations on the device, like charging or changing the device’s settings may feel like insurmountable barriers. Caregivers must also have the patience to teach the elderly proper use of the device, or the device may as well be useless.

Most modern electronic gadgets need to be charged, rather than simply depending on batteries. Many of the elderly do not only use their assistive devices at odd intervals but depend on them to run their daily lives smoothly. Some devices, such as mobility devices, cannot function while tethered to a charging port. Fortunately, there are solutions to this problem. Wireless charging and solar-powered batteries are being explored as alternatives to wired charging.

Although assistive devices do help the elderly retain a sense of normality in their daily lives, they do not encourage the elderly to lead an active social life. The accessibility of media made for leisure or entertainment may even be discouraging the elderly from going outdoors or physically interacting with friends. This has huge implications for the elderly’s health. Studies have shown a correlation between healthy aging and social interactions, with social isolation associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia and other serious medical conditions. By the end of this century, senior citizens may end up spending more time with robots than establishing human connections. With long-term use of assistive technology also comes the risk of developing a false sense of security, which may cause some seniors to stay indoors all day. Staying indoors and a lack of movement have been linked to heightened risks of chronic illnesses like diabetes or heart disease. Despite that, seniors may harbor the incorrect perception that assistive devices can sustain them without the need for them to play their part in leading a healthy lifestyle.

Finally, assistive devices, if used incorrectly, may instead pose as hazardous household appliances. Devices may catch on fire while charging and exposed wires can electrocute unwary users. House fires caused by electric fires account for an estimated 51 000 fires each year, and more than 14 500 injuries. There is no simple solution to this problem. Assistive devices must be held to the highest safety standards, especially as they will be used in the homes of elderly people, who are one of society’s most vulnerable groups.


About the Author

Willow Kang is a student writer from Singapore. Her work has been showcased in several publications.

Kang is interested in history and storytelling, and holds the position of staff writer at an online magazine.

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