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ICT barriers for older people: how can we keep in touch with technology?

By Kate Hamblin and Sue Yeandle
All too often, the deterioration of sight and hearing are seen as ‘just part of getting older’, and as a result are under-reported and inadequately assessed. When hearing and vision are both impaired, they present a unique challenge which requires new strategies and management. It’s estimated that 222,000 people in the UK aged over 70 have dual sensory impairment (DSI), and that by 2030 that number will be close to 418,000. Recognising this, UK deafblind charity Sense established a research team in 2010 to undertake new projects evaluating the impact of DSI across the lifespan. One of these projects created a screening tool for DSI for use in residential care settings, while another project explored issues related to living independently in older age with DSI.

A study at the University of Sheffield, ‘Keeping in Touch with Technology?’, is part of this research, and explores the use of assistive technology and telecare by older adults with DSI. Sense commissioned the study in 2014 and we completed it in 2015. The University of Sheffield’s CIRCLE (Centre for International Research on Care, Labour and Equalities) worked with Sense and the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing to examine issues related to the challenges faced by older adults with DSI, and the role of assistive technology and telecare devices in promoting active and independent lives.

As part of a previous study that looked at independence in later life, we regularly visited elderly participants over a period of 4-6 months, to explore their use of technology and their wider lives. This included their personal biographies, relationships, communities and health. We adapted this methodology for our work with Sense and our research team, making 146 household visits to 38 older adults with varying degrees of DSI. These adults had a variety of assistive technology and telecare in place, ranging from quite ‘low-tech’ devices to expensive, highly specialist equipment.

We explored participants’ use of technology in managing difficulties they faced in everyday life. These difficulties were arranged into three groups: activities outside the home (transport, shopping, socialising); activities inside the home (household chores, personal care); and, communicating with others. Some participants had coped well with single sensory impairment for many years, but now had to adjust to the deterioration of the other sense on which they had previously relied. Technology could sometimes help: GPS devices helped with navigation, ‘talking’ kitchen technology items made cooking easier, and personal loop systems and Braille displays promoted communication.

In some situations, technology gave people with DSI valuable extra support, but there were also barriers in using and accessing technology. Some felt intimidated by technology, or felt that it was not “for them”. Limited awareness was another barrier – people in the study were often unsure what technology was available, and even if they felt an item of equipment might be useful, they found the huge variety of manufacturers and suppliers confusing and off-putting. Specialist technology can be very expensive, so making choices based on limited information or experience was deemed to be “risky”.

Cost and choice were also major barriers. Those who had resources felt that some equipment was prohibitively expensive, while those who relied on equipment provided by their local authority said their choice was limited. Some participants felt their local authority’s assessment for equipment focused only on safety and risk, and failed to address other needs or give them access to activities where technology could help.

Some felt that the products they had tried were not “fit for purpose”, and that a lot of equipment had been designed with only single-sensory impairment in mind. Participants felt that using these devices involved a “compromise”, and in many of our research visits, the team saw assistive technology equipment which had been abandoned. Inadequate training and follow-up support was another issue, with some participants unsure as to how to use their devices correctly, or what to do if they went wrong.

Our findings indicate that service providers, equipment suppliers and product developers need to do more to meet the needs of older people with DSI – the size of this group is growing fast, just as technology is also advancing at a rapid rate. Where technology was successfully adopted, the following things happened: participants felt much safer at home; they were using public transport alone; they could manage everyday chores unaided; and they enjoyed new modes of communication and social interactions.

However, we also found worrying barriers to accessing and using technology. To address this, we recommend an increase in awareness-raising and campaigning around technology and DSI. This will help older people with DSI find out what products are available, and where and how they can obtain them. We also highlight the importance of raising awareness of the needs of people with DSI in the product-design community. This will ensure that, in future, products are developed with this growing group firmly in mind.

The ‘Keeping in Touch with Technology?’ report was compiled by Kate Hamblin, Sue Yeandle and Emma-Reetta Koivunen. Dr Kate Hamblin is James Martin Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, University of Oxford. Sue Yeandle is Professor of Sociology and Director of CIRCLE at the University of Sheffield. Dr Emma-Reetta Koivunen is Research Associate in the Faculty of Health and Social Care, Manchester Metropolitan University.

The full report can be found at the following link in PDF: .


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