With the number of people aged 60 or over set to double by 2050, population ageing represents one of the UK’s most difficult challenges in the coming years.

At the same time the pace of technological change continues to charge ahead, sometimes unintentionally excluding user groups who might otherwise significantly benefit from these advancements.

Despite this, the adoption of technology continues to climb in those aged 55 and over, with 89% of respondents to a 2021 Serco survey stating that they have wifi in their own home, and 83% personally owning a smartphone.

Technology designed to revolutionise care - and quality of life

Now, new research being conducted by the University of Lincoln, Lincolnshire County Council and Serco, indicates that the introduction of assistive technology at home could revolutionise life for vulnerable adults who might otherwise feel excluded or isolated. Furthermore, such technology could provide preventative benefits, eradicating or deferring downstream complications and constraints, such as mental health challenges, that might otherwise arise.

The ‘Social Care Technology Innovation for the Citizens of Lincolnshire’ project has been running since June last year and is now wrapping up its investigation into how affordable home tech could be used to enhance care service delivery and improve the lives of almost 12,000 adults supported every year by Lincolnshire County Council. Of this number 8,905 people need some form of long-term help, with resources being divided to cover mental health, learning disabilities, memory and cognition, and physical and social support.

Innovation in the community

One family participating in the study explained how technology at home is making a difference to enhancing their needs. ‘Julie’, daughter-in-law to Lincolnshire residents ‘Lois’ and ‘Ken,’ both in their eighties, commented:

‘We knew our parents were getting older, and along with that comes associated things like needing a bit more support, perhaps reduced mobility and the onset of medical conditions.

‘We wanted to provide support, but in a way that was not invasive or obtrusive and this is where Howz really helped and has given us some piece of mind.

‘This is a piece of digital kit that helps support people to maintain their independence at home. My parents have three sensors, one at the top of the stairs, one in the kitchen, and one on the back door.

‘My husband and I have a phone app that starts to build up a pattern, so we can see their usual behaviour.’

Lois adds: ‘Ken’s health isn’t particularly good so he’s liable to fall or need help at times. The sensors let my son and daughter-in-law know what we’re doing. They know if we put the kettle on and if there’s movement.

Could this technology be intrusive?

Lois believes not. ‘If anything did happen, such as a fall, we can always ring, but the [assistive technology] gives an indication that all’s well. We don’t feel we’re being spied on, it’s just a case of knowing someone’s watching over us.’

The initial outcomes of our research with Lincolnshire County Council and Serco, will be released in February, but so far are tallying closely the Department for Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) agenda to consider innovative approaches to increase independence and self-care for people living with complex conditions, while also improving the circumstances of carers.

Dr Salah Al-Majeed, Deputy Head of the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, notes: ‘While our research has focussed on Lincolnshire, these issues affect the UK’s wider population.

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‘Recent figures from the Homecare Association show that local authorities in England currently have 400,000 people on waiting lists for assessment, while another survey from The National Care Forum has found that two-third of homecare providers are turning away new care requests due to staff shortages.

‘Technology offers increasing potential for new methods of diagnosing, detecting and monitoring warning signs in vulnerable adults, and can also serve to connect friends, families, carers and communities within a wider web of support.

‘While the UK’s care system is currently in the midst of a significant overhaul, the requirements of the country’s 14.1 million disabled people, and 5.3 million people aged over 75 must be catered for.

Where is the technology best suited?

‘This is particularly the case when it comes to supporting Lincolnshire's rural community, where many people are living in isolated locations, which often presents technology challenges in itself, such as internet connection speeds, although there are modern and emerging ways in which this can be combatted.

‘Technology can’t do everything - it can’t put you to bed, clean you or give you a hug, but with modern devices including remote-sensing, wearable-tech, machine learning and AI now more easily accessible than ever, it can free up time to allow social workers, occupational therapists and professional carers apply their valuable skills, experience and knowledge.

‘This is further supported by appropriate data analytics and insights that help deliver interventions at the optimum time. We believe our research paints a credible vision for a simple, comprehensive technology approach that can deliver significant benefits and transform outcomes for all stakeholders in the care system. Proof-of-concept is the next stage and one we’re particularly excited about.’

Ben Johnson, Serco Head of Technology within Local Government Partnerships, adds: ‘For family-based-carers, the same benefits can be realised, with the added advantage of being able to ‘wrap’ the care-recipient in an extended-network of care, with all parties in the trusted-family-network - whether they’re a son, daughter, in-laws, grandchildren or neighbours - being able to share access securely to intelligent, real-time ‘wellbeing information,’ including proactive or reactive warnings and alerts.’

Theo Jarratt, Social Care Digital Transformation Lead for Lincolnshire County Council, concludes: ‘The ageing and growing population demands present a significant challenge to councils throughout the UK, particularly in rural areas such as Lincolnshire with care staff often travelling large distances between care-recipients, reducing the number of visits and quality-time available for each visit. However, there is a real opportunity to review how technology can help and we’re excited that Lincolnshire is at the forefront of championing this goal.’