AgeTech - how technology can tackle loneliness and improve quality of life for older people

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett June 29, 2020
Two Norwegian companies, Motitech and No Isolation, have designed simple, but effective age-tech solutions to improve the quality of life of older people by making them compelling and easy to use.

Image of an older person holding hands
(Image by Sabine van Erp from Pixabay )

Despite what we are generally led to believe, it is not the ageing process per se that creates physical and mental health problems for people. Instead it is often the situations that individuals find themselves in, whether we are talking about a general lack of exercise or loneliness and social isolation.

According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, for example, isolation is associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke and makes someone 26% more likely to die. It also puts them at greater risk of depression, lower cognitive functioning and dementia.

But two Norwegian companies, Motitech and No Isolation, are trying to do something about this situation by using relatively simple technology imaginatively applied to help.

Motitech was set up in 2013 after its founders were hired by the city of Bergen to make four videos of the local streets for a care home project. The idea behind the videos was to encourage residents to use adapted bikes for undertaking physical exercise by providing them with an immersive experience based on a local area they knew well.

After two months, the initiative showed that taking this kind of exercise had improved everything from residents' strength and balance to their sleep and appetite. It likewise boosted social activity, such as sharing their memories with carers, whose wellbeing also increased as a result. Stian Lavik, director and chief business officer of Motitech UK, explains:

The key idea behind using videos of streets and roads while cycling was to do with motivation. If people are looking at the videos, they forget they're doing physical exercise, so it's more stimulating. They also reminisce and start telling stories to their carers, who act as the support team in helping to facilitate their physical activity.

Such activity is important, Lavik believes, because, while historically, the sector may have focused predominantly on providing care, in reality, "age-related health issues are due to lack of physical activity, not age itself". As a result, to ensure wellbeing, it is vital to cater to this side of things too.

To this end, the company now has 2,000 videos of streets in 40 countries in its library, most of which have been created by its own film crews, but some of which have also been filmed by local partners. These videos are accessed via a laptop that runs "easy-to-use Netflix-like software" and is connected to a TV monitor for viewing purposes, although the technology can also be used in offline mode if a broadband connection is not available.

Access to the video library is based on an annual subscription model and while, in some countries, such as Norway, access to exercise bikes from a German manufacturer is provided as part of a wider package, in most instances, the organisation usually just points customers to a range of equipment options to buy themselves.

The social enterprise itself currently employs 16 full- and part-time staff, two of whom are in the UK and one in Canada, but it also has customers in Sweden, Denmark and Iceland and is working on a pilot project in Australia. A similar initiative in Minnesota had to be put on hold as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, however.

Computer, compassion and companionship in one box

A second Norwegian company that is dealing with the mental rather than the physical health side of the equation, meanwhile, is Oslo-based No Isolation, which currently has 30 employees on its books. It was founded in 2015 and its product, Komp - which is a play on the words ‘computer', ‘compassion' and ‘companionship' - is a device aimed specifically at digitally-excluded older people to help them keep in touch with family and friends.

A standalone box that is plugged in at the mains and is designed to sit on a table, Komp consists of a 17-inch screen, which provides high levels of contrast for those with visual impairments. It also has a high quality microphone and large rotary dial that clicks on and off loudly to alert those with hearing issues.

A wide-angle camera likewise ensures that users can be seen without having to get up from their chair, and there is also no miniature image of themselves at the side of the screen to cause confusion. Harriet Gridley, the company's UK director explains the rationale:

Lots of products exist for older adults, but many don't fulfil their objectives to help because they're not tailored enough to address the physical barriers people experience. For example, many products have touch screens or need to be held, but older people may have tremors or leathery fingertips if reduced circulation has thickened their skin, which makes the experience similar to using a smartphone with gloves on. Another issue can be memory, which means that they forget their passwords.

But because family members are often older too, the set-up process is also designed to be as easy as possible. After ordering Komp directly from the website, it is simply added to the WiFi network and activated by adding a code to a free controller app that users are required to download to their Android or iOS-based smartphone.

They can then invite the rest of the family to join their community. Each family member can use the app to send messages and pictures to their loved one and undertake video calls at pre-defined times using encrypted software. Content alerts pop up instantly if the device is turned on, but if not, content is stored until it is.

The product can either be bought, or rented by care agencies if managing a fleet of them, but Gridley indicates that usage has risen markedly since the Covid-19 lockdown originally took place. She explains:

Before the Covid-19 crisis, we were seeing an average of 1.9 messages a week, but it's now risen to about 8.5. The thing is that Komp as a product is all about inclusion. As people age, they can often feel frustrated or out of touch with what's happening with the rest of the family, but this is about putting them back at the centre. This creates a community not just for them but also for the rest of their relations too, especially during lockdown when it proved to be a real lifeline for those who couldn't visit their loved ones.

My take

The technology used in both of these instances is far from complex and has focused on ease-of-use as a key characteristic. But the real secret sauce has been tuning into what older people really want and need - a key lesson that many technology vendors would do well to learn.