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Blog: "When I get older..."

Posted by Georgie Cade (Admin) 4 months ago

UCL researcher Prof Ann Blandford writes about what technology developers need to keep in mind when designing for older people

The topic of "healthy ageing" is seen a very important. For example, in the UK, there is a challenge of "5 extra healthy years by 2035". It's not clear how that will be measured, or indeed whether it means 5 extra years of life (that will be healthy ones) or targeting improved health within the current lifespan.

At UCL, we had a panel discussion on this theme at the 2019 Institute of Healthcare Engineering annual symposium, and the House of Lords Science & Technology Committee is currently conducting an Inquiry into Ageing: Science, Technology and Healthy Living. I had the interesting experience of appearin...is committee. The discussion was wide-ranging, but inevitably didn't cover all the themes that are important: it's a huge topic!

Here are a few themes we didn't talk about that I think are important in this discourse:

  • Expectations of ageing. There isn't a single experience of ageing. Yes, there can be challenges, such as cognitive impairments (e.g., dementia) and managing multiple morbidities, but this isn't a universal experience. For example, Angela Soper and Ivor McCourt are both climbing at a high standard in their 70s, and many people have great fun as they age, whether it involves demanding physical activity or not.
  • Wisdom has a value that complements the qualities of younger generations, and most people have valuable things to contribute to society, provided that structures are in place to empower people to contribute in whatever ways they can.
  • There isn't a single date on which we become "old", and good design should be accessible to most people regardless of their age. Indeed, people are likely to find a technology useful in older age if (a) it doesn't carry a stigmatising label of being "for older people", and (b) it is something that they have found useful for some time (and are familiar with).
  • Theories such as Self Determination Theory highlight the importance of experiences such as autonomy, competence and relatedness in contributing to quality of life. Autonomy and competence can be promoted or diminished through technology design and the infrastructure that surrounds it. For example, local government services that can only be accessed digitally without providing support for people with limited digital skills are disempowering. Conversely, technology that is easy to use and that gives people access to services they might not be able to access otherwise is empowering.
  • Loneliness is one of the most important factors in poor quality of life and cognitive decline in older age. This is predicted to be a growing problem in the UK, and loneliness is associated with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia. Poorly designed technology and infrastructure contribute to loneliness, but there are some great opportunities to design technologies that bring people together and increase people's sense of connectedness.

Designing for people of all generations is just that: designing for people, recognising that everyone has their abilities and their needs. There's a quotation that goes something like: "Growing old isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative." For some people (e.g., in pain or managing dementia), this might not be true, but hopefully, appropriate technologies can help to make later stages of life a positive experience for many people. So can cliffs and swings and other "low tech" stuff!

This post was edited on Oct 23, 2020 by Alice Hardy

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