aged care innovations for your loved ones australia

Aged Care Innovations to Keep Your Loved Ones Engaged

Staying connected to beloved older people in our lives is so important. But physical distance and a busy schedule can keep us from visiting as often as we would like. Here are some ways technology can help us keep our loved ones engaged from a distance.

by Emma Lennon

We all want the best for our loved ones, especially beloved older friends or family who may live far away from you or in an Aged Care facility. With the challenges of distance and keeping up with the busy schedule of our daily lives, it can be difficult to visit in person as often as we would like. Fortunately, recent advancements in technology have created a wealth of opportunities to increase engagement and communication with each other regardless of location. Here are some handy tips and tricks for how you can use technology to bridge physical distances and stay connected and engaged with your older loved ones, wherever they may be.

The Importance of Social Connection for Health and Wellbeing

Meaningful connection with people around us is crucial for our mental, physical and social wellbeing. Feeling that we belong in our community is central to how humans thrive in their world, and is actually a biologically hardwired survival mechanism. Our ancestors relied heavily on belonging to a group to survive the harsh elements and dangerous predators. Whilst we can now survive much more independently of others, the human brain still considers isolation as a potential threat to life, which can help explain why social rejection can stimulate a similar neural response to physical pain. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why social isolation continues to be an important determining factor for the health and wellbeing of individuals and populations.

Experiencing social isolation is not only damaging for our mental health and sense of belonging and self-esteem, it can actually have detrimental effects on our physical health. Research suggests that perceived loneliness or isolation can reduce quality of life and increase our risk of premature death from all causes. Isolation and loneliness is associated with an increased risk of dementia, stroke, heart disease and depression, and increases the risk of hospitalisation by around 68%. Whilst these statistics are concerning, the good news is that by increasing the social support and engagement of older loved ones in our lives, we can greatly improve their quality of life and protect their health well into their older age. 

Social Isolation and Loneliness: An Epidemic Among Older People

Despite the well-documented importance of remaining socially connected for our physical health and emotional wellbeing, rates of isolation and loneliness are steadily increasing for older people in Australia. This is partly because of Australia’s ageing population, which has seen a greater number of people living for much longer, leading to an increase in the proportion of Australians over the age of 65. People in this age group are more likely to experience some risk factors for loneliness and isolation, including living alone, declining health and mobility, mourning the death of friends and family, and loss of independence, including moving into residential aged care. Given that the population will continue to age, with more of us likely to enter aged care at some point in our lives, finding innovative ways to stay socially engaged is important to ensure successful ageing, and protecting the health and dignity of older Australians, now and into the future. 

Technological Advancements: Bridging Physical Divides and Creating Opportunities for Social Connection

The introduction of modern technology and the internet has transformed the way we live, work, socialise and support our loved ones. These advancements have contributed to a more globalised, connected world than ever before, and how we interact is no longer limited by where we live or our physical ability to travel. Whilst social media and internet-based ways of communication are most often considered a trademark of children and younger people, they hold incredible potential to support older people in our community.

Using technology to communicate and access information and services can overcome many barriers that older people are facing, such as limited mobility or an inability to travel independently into the community or to visit friends and family. Unfortunately, technology and the internet is currently underutilised by older people, with some worried about the safety of using the internet, whilst others are interested in learning but facing digital exclusion or lack of access. Finding the right technological tools or systems that work for you and your loved one might make an enormous difference to their emotional wellbeing and their everyday lives. 

Technological Innovations: Stay Engaged and Connected

There is now a wider range of digital devices, applications, programs and websites available to help keep your loved one socially active than ever before. Younger people typically find it easy to master the use of new technologies because they have grown up in a digital world, but it is important to remember that older people may be unfamiliar and lacking in confidence when interacting with new technology for the first time. Be patient with your loved one, and don’t be afraid to try out several different options to find one that works best for them. 

Useful Smartphone Apps and Tools for Seniors

For most of us, it is hard to imagine a day in our lives without using our mobile phones. Apart from their purpose to make and receive calls and messages, we now use our smartphones for almost everything; from setting our alarm clock in the morning to reading a book on our Kindle app at night. Older people can also benefit from the multifunctional nature of a modern smartphone, and all the apps and tools they provide. Some mobile phone apps and programs that may help older people stay engaged include:

Zoom or FaceTime

apps and tools

Phone calls are great, but they are no replacement for being able to see the face of our loved one on the other end. Apps like FaceTime and Zoom have made video calls easier and more accessible than ever, and can really brighten the day of someone living alone or in residential aged care. Video chat services can also replicate the feeling of group outings, with some aged care providers using Zoom rooms to create virtual ‘cafes’ for older people to socialise and connect with other seniors. 

Pill Reminders

Some older people live with one or more chronic health conditions, and often need to take several medications on a daily basis. Improper use of medications, due to forgetting to take pills or refilling prescriptions, can have serious health implications if not addressed. Smartphone apps can be programmed to give audio alerts when it is time to take a medication, and give written instructions on which medication to take. This can reduce errors in medication management, prevent health events, and also alleviate some of the mental load from the older person and their loved ones or carers, so that you can focus on spending quality time together. Pill reminder apps can be downloaded via the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store.

Mobile Games, Puzzles and Brain Teasers

Games are a fun, accessible way of passing the time or interacting with others. Some games also have potential benefits for brain function and memory, particularly for seniors. Brain training games like Lumosity are available on desktop, Android or Apple devices and can be tailored to meet the needs of your loved one.

Voice Recording Apps

Some older people experience difficulties remembering information, and as a result may ask the same question several times a day. It’s important not to get frustrated or impatient with a loved one who is asking repetitive questions, however it is not always realistic to continually provide the same response. Most smartphones have an in-built voice recorder, which can be used to have family members or friends record the answers to commonly asked questions, so that an older person can hear the response as many times as they need, even if the relative is not available to respond in person. 

Weather and News Apps

Being able to check the forecast or catch up on the latest world events at the tap of a screen is something many of us take for granted. But for those who have yet to experience the ease of access to information that smartphone apps offer, it can make a huge difference. Reading about current affairs can increase a person’s sense of connection to their community and reduce the feeling of being forgotten or ‘left behind’. 

Using the Internet to Help Your Loved One Age in Place Safely and Independently

Whilst some older people may choose to reside in an aged care facility, most tend to prefer to remain in their own home as long as possible. This is great for their sense of independence, dignity and self-esteem, however it does come with some risks or challenges. Those without full-time support may have difficulty with important tasks like paying bills or buying groceries, putting them at risk of having utilities cut off or being malnourished. Technology can be incredibly useful in automating certain tasks that can make an older person’s life a lot easier.

Creating a regular shopping list that is automatically ordered from a local supermarket and delivered to your loved one’s home can ensure they always have access to fresh, nutritious food, without the need to travel to the supermarket. You can also utilise online banking to set up automatic debits to pay bills, removing the need for your loved one to travel to the bank or post office to make payments in person. Automating these tasks not only reduces the amount of tasks your older loved one needs to remember and complete, it can alleviate stress off of caregivers and family members, who can rest easy knowing that essential tasks are taken care of automatically. 

Tablets and Other Smart Devices

Using a laptop or smartphone might be challenging for an older person who is new to technology. Laptops and computers can have complex operating systems and smartphones screens and keyboards might be too small for older people with low vision or poor fine motor skills. Tablets have the benefits of being easier to see and use as they are larger than a smartphone, but are typically simpler to use than a desktop computer or a laptop. Tablets can be purchased for a relatively low cost, and can be set up without a SIM card and with parental controls activated if you are worried about your loved one incurring a steep phone bill or making accidental purchases.

Other devices that may be useful for an older person dear to you include wearable devices like Fitbits and other fitness trackers. Fitness trackers can provide regular insights into health indicators like blood pressure, heart rate and activity level, and can also track GPS location to help ensure the safety of an older loved one. They can also be used to set reminders to move around regularly, helping to maintain adequate levels of physical activity which is essential for healthy, successful ageing. Certain aspects of the home, like lighting, heating and cooling, can even be automated to create a safe, accessible home environment that enables your loved one to live as fully, independently and safely as possible. 

Social Media

Social media is no longer just for teenagers and young people. Mainstream social media channels like Facebook and Twitter offer a fantastic opportunity for older people to stay in touch with family and friends, and easily stay up to date with what their loved ones are doing in their daily lives. Being able to connect with people close to us from anywhere in the world has enormous potential to reduce feelings of loneliness and improve the social, cognitive and physical health of older Australians.

Whilst more research in this area is needed, some early evidence suggests that health outcomes in seniors who regularly use social media were better than those who didn’t access the internet. This is promising, however, it is important to remember that the internet and social media also comes with risks. Older people can be vulnerable to scams, hackers and online abuse, so it is important to make sure safety measures are in place. Australia’s eSafety Commissioner has a wealth of information, resources and support available to ensure beloved older people in your life can access the internet safely and securely. 

Services to Help an Older Loved One Get Used to Using Technology

Teaching an older loved one how to use a new technology for the first time can be challenging and frustrating for you and the person you are trying to teach. If you are finding it hard to assist a beloved older person to start using the internet or a digital device, there are dedicated services and programs that may help. These include, but are not limited to the following programs.

Telstra’s Tech Savvy Seniors

This is a program being delivered in partnership with state governments to help older Australians get online and stay connected with the ones they love. The Tech Savvy Seniors program offers support in the form of face-face training, online learning modules, and a suite of learning resources. 

The Be Connected Network

This is a national network of over 3,500 community organisations across Australia that deliver government-supported training for older people to access the internet and improve their digital skills. You can contact them for more information about the program or find a local Be Connected Network member via their website to get support for an older person to get online.

GoDigi

This is a service provided by non-profit organisation Infoxchange, in partnership with Australia Post. GoDigi matches volunteer digital mentors with older Australians wanting to learn to use technology in a one-on-one, low stress environment. You can find a mentor for your loved one or find out more via the GoDigi website, as this one-on-one approach may be better suited for those very new to using the internet or who are lacking confidence and find group training intimidating. 

Concerned About the Emotional and Social Wellbeing of an Older Loved One?

If you have noticed a change in your loved one’s behaviour, mood or health, it’s important to seek help. Loneliness can affect many people in their later life, however, it is not a normal part of ageing. Mental health care can be accessed by contacting your General Practitioner who will provide a referral and a mental health care plan to enable subsidised access to a psychologist or counsellor. Other great sources of information, support and advice include the Black Dog Institute or Beyond Blue for mental health support and resources, or Carers Australia if you need support in your caring role. 

Homage also has a team of dedicated, compassionate Care Professionals who can provide a range of services to your loved one in their own home, so that you can focus on spending quality time together, and keeping beloved older people in your life socially active and engaged.

References
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  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2021, November 30). Older Australians. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/older-people/older-australia-at-a-glance/contents/demographics-of-older-australians/australia-s-changing-age-and-gender-profile
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  6. Moieni, M., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2020). Social Isolation and Health. The Wiley Encyclopedia of Health Psychology, 695–702. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119057840.ch121
  7. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2020, February 27). Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. The National Academies Press. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25663/social-isolation-and-loneliness-in-older-adults-opportunities-for-the
  8. Pérez-Jover, V., Mira, J., Carratala-Munuera, C., Gil-Guillen, V., Basora, J., López-Pineda, A., & Orozco-Beltrán, D. (2018). Inappropriate Use of Medication by Elderly, Polymedicated, or Multipathological Patients with Chronic Diseases. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(2), 310. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph15020310
  9. Reneland-Forsman, L. (2018). ‘Borrowed access’ – the struggle of older persons for digital participation. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 37(3), 333–344. https://doi.org/10.1080/02601370.2018.1473516
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About the Writer
Emma Lennon
Emma is a public health professional who is passionate about creating health content that informs and empowers. When she is not writing, you can find her at the gym or curled up on the couch with her rescue greyhounds.
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