Over the last decade or so, technology has made things easier for us. The internet, smartphones, Skype/Facetime, social media, Siri, Sat Navs... you name it, our lives have been transformed by it. Recent research from Carers UK, the national membership charity for people caring, unpaid, for loved ones, shows that seven out of 10 adults online across the country use technology to help them manage their money, shop, network with friends and communicate with the outside world.

Technology is available that could transform the way we approach health and care, too. Sadly, less than three in 10 of us use it — and that's a depressing figure says Madeleine Starr, Director of Business Development and Innovation at Carers UK.

 

Pressures

 

“The pressures on social care are so intense that something has to give somewhere,” she admits. “Yet technology could help relieve those pressures because innovations are a great way of maximising support.” For example, monitors and sensors can alert family carers if someone has had a fall, or respond to changes in room temperature; while GPS tracking, exit sensors or location devices can tell them if someone with dementia has wandered outside of their home.

Then there are vital sign monitors which help track blood glucose, blood pressure and blood oxygen, or monitor heart rate and sleep patterns; plus medication management systems remind people when to take their medicine (or alert their carer if they forget). Apps — available on any smartphone — can help coordinate care, monitor health and mental health or help manage a condition. “For instance, it's so easy to remotely turn the heating up in an older person's house with app-related environmental controls,” says Starr. “And you can programme smart plugs so that the lights come on whenever someone gets out of bed, decreasing their chances of having a fall.”

 

Independence

 

Starr insists technology will never be a replacement for human interaction. “That's not what this is about,” she says. “But it can enable us to target human support much more effectively. For example, if a care agency using a monitoring system can see that a client has been up six times in the night, it might mean he or she has a urinary tract infection. So technology can be used for prevention and detection, too.”

So what's stopping greater numbers of carers — and the cared for — using this kind of tech? After all, it could reduce their stress and anxiety, increase their independence and greatly enhance their lives. The answer, says Starr, is a general lack of awareness; so more needs to be done to tell people that these innovations actually exist. She notes that it's particularly surprising when people use apps or wear activity trackers to support their own wellbeing, but don't make the logical leap that similar devices could also help elderly members of their own family.

 

Inexpensive

 

“I've done focus groups with some very smart, tech savvy people who didn't have the slightest idea what's available with regards health/care technology,” says Starr. “In one forum I met people who are frantically worried that their very frail parents, who are living independently at home, will have a fall. Not one of them had heard of a falls detector. They hadn't even heard of a lifeline pendant (a personal alarm service worn around the neck). But then it's very hard to go looking for something when you don't know what it is you're trying to find.”

This equipment doesn't have to be expensive, either, is readily available and easy to use. In England, access to local authority provided – or funded – technology solutions will normally require a needs assessment and will be subject to you meeting the national eligibility criteria and agreeing with the local authority that these technology solutions are the best way to meet your needs. “This kind of technology can be low-cost, it's plug and play, and some of it can be connected to a call centre for 24/7 monitoring,” says Starr. “You can buy it in electronics stores, online retailers and specialist health and care product providers. Where to get it is not the problem, though. The real issue is that people don't know what these devices are or what they can do. That has to change. Otherwise it's a wasted opportunity for them.”