Technology has already revolutionised the way we communicate, the way we work, the way we play.
The question is can it also revolutionise the way we look after ourselves and others?
Technology is changing the way we care for older and vulnerable people. There is now a huge variety of different equipment designed to give support and independence to carers and the people they look after.
One of the simplest forms of technology available to carers is a personal alarm. This consists of a button - often in the form of a pendant worn around the neck, or on the wrist, and a base unit that works with your telephone system. The base unit will receive a signal from the personal alarm and will be linked to a monitoring centre.
When the person you look after pushes the alarm button, the call will go via the telephone line to the monitoring centre, which is staffed by trained operators who will answer the alarm call on any day of the year, 24 hours a day.
The base unit is a two way device, enabling you to talk to the staff at the monitoring centre, and for them to talk to you. If the alarm button is pressed, the first thing the monitoring centre will do is to call right back and contact the carer immediately.
Technology such as the personal alarm is vital in providing piece of mind for a carer.
As Margaret explains, “My husband has heart disease and vascular problems, epileptic seizures and he has problems with his walking. As his health deteriorated it became impossible to leave him unattended. A couple of times I came back and he was lying on the floor. Now I have complete piece of mind when I need to go into town. If my husband has a fall the control unit will send an emergency call to the monitoring centre who will contact me straight away. We wouldn’t be without it now as it really is very assuring.”
A lifeline to normality
Technology such as the personal alarm is designed to make life more manageable for a carer and the person they look after. Caring can take its toll on your health, finances and relationships but with the technology available today, life can be made a little easier - relieving stress and letting you get an undisturbed night’s sleep.
Some families have complex care needs. Paul looks after his daughter Vicky who has cerebral palsy and his wife Moira who has multiple sclerosis.
Paul describes the technology as a lifeline to normality: “Like many people who get forced into a caring situation – you think you can handle it all and no matter what life throws at you, you can cope. And you do to a certain extent. But when you get continually interrupted sleep and put under stress your body will react at some stage and that’s what happened to me. I woke up in hospital and thought - who’s looking after my wife and daughter? That was the wake up call, if I wanted to continue in my caring role I had to get some sort of support.”
Paul’s wife has a system of environmental controls she can operate with a slight movement of her wrist. She can make and receive phone calls, control access through the front door, switch lights on and off and use the TV and video.
It has given her greater freedom and as she explains, “I didn’t have to rely on someone being at my side all the time; I could feel part of the family again.”
Technology is also enabling many older people to stay in their own homes for longer. Roberta cares for her mother Ann, who has Alzheimer’s and lives alone.
Ann started to wander outside at night so her GP suggested a sensor was installed at Ann’s front door to raise an alarm if she opens it after 9 in the evening and before 8 in the morning.
When Ann does set the alarm off at night, somebody at the monitoring centre can speak to her and as Roberta says, “9 times out of 10 they’ll talk her out of whatever is in her head that night - there is no doubt in my mind that my mother would not be able to stay in her home if it wasn’t for the support that the technology has brought.”
Door and movement sensors can also be linked to a web based service called just checking. This service is used in some parts of the country to assess the care needs of people with dementia. Sensors can be placed around the home and when they detect movement a bar is placed on a chart. This gives a picture of a person’s daily routine and helps to assess what care they need, when they need it, and whether they might be at risk of leaving doors open or wandering outside. Just checking is a powerful tool but it raises important ethical issues such as privacy and consent.
For many people and their carers, technology quite simply holds the promise of a better life. This type of technology is out there to be used and it’s designed to help people lead better lives.
Types of technology available
Flood and smoke detectors
Upon detecting flooding or smoke, these sensors will raise a local audible alarm and alert the carer or monitoring centre.
Gas detector and shut off valve
This sensor detects the presence of carbon monoxide and natural gas, and raises an alarm with the monitoring centre or carer. If required it can shut off the gas supply automatically, making the environment safe before anyone enters.
This sensor is placed under a foam mattress and sheet to monitor vital signs, including heart rate, and raise an alarm if seizures occur.
Bed/chair occupancy sensor
This sensor fits under the mattress, or in a chair or wheelchair, and alerts the carer or monitoring centre if the occupant leaves the bed or chair and does not return within a given time period. It can also switch on lights automatically to help the cared for person find their way more easily.
A small trigger attached to clothing, or a wrist device, alert the monitoring centre or carer if a serious fall is detected.
Home alert pager
This pager enables the carer to be notified if any of the sensors are activated, when they are at home or in the garden, rather than routing them to a monitoring centre.
Property exit sensor
This sensor notifies the carer or monitoring centre if a person leaves the building at set times of the day or night. It can also detect if a main door has been left open and can be linked to external lighting to provide additional protection.
Bogus caller button
A panic button allows the disabled person or vulnerable adult to raise an alarm, silently if required, if they fear that an intruder or bogus caller is trying to gain access to their property.