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Older people falling isn’t a YouTube meme...

Did you know your gait can be affected by your surroundings?

“It sounds like such a pathetic thing, doesn’t it?” says Dr Dermot Power, of the Mater Hospital in Dublin, in the soft, almost jokey voice that doctors use before giving you information that’ll scare the bejaysus out of you. And he doesn’t disappoint. “Falls in themselves can inhibit people’s confidence, make them stay at home not get out so much and in turn that causes depression and it can exacerbate dementia.”

And if that all sounds a touch intangible, he continues: “Based on our data, supported by data from UK, [there is] about a 25 per cent mortality rate for a traumatic hip fracture in people over 75.”

And this is why Dr Power, and research partner Dr Brian Caulfield, are being backed by Fujitsu in their research into gait analysis. Caulfield has had a full equipped kinesiology lab at his disposal for a couple of decades. But he says the use of lightweight Shimmer sensors - produced by an Dublin-based Intel spinout - together with adaptive algorithms to crunch the data has the potential to produce much more granular and accurate data.

“Increasingly we started realising they weren’t moving the way they normally would [in the lab],” he says. So the data had high granularity, “but the value was not necessarily what you might want it to be.”

With the sensors, the docs can harvest vast amounts of data as subjects - whether athletes or oldsters - go about their daily routines, and match changes in those routines to subsequent health events. This will give different insights to those captured in the comparatively constrained environment of Dundalk.

One surprising observation from Caulfied: “You might find gait changes in an environment with a lot of cognitive challenge.” Well, you might say over-60s shouldn’t go to raves then. But think about supermarkets - bright lights, overwhelming choice and messaging, colours, and lots of obstacles. When prowling the aisles, “gait quality deteriorated quite remarkably.”

This chimes with some of the more lower-tech solutions Poole reports from FOTE’s UK homes, where dark threshold lines on floors between rooms and areas were interpreted as obstacles by their elderly residents. Likewise the colour of a toilet seat could have a marked effect on the chances of an older person actually finding it.

And that balance between low and high-tech is something that vendors, and policy-makers, should never lose sight of.

Poole is adamant that “Tech does need to be part of that solution but it won’t be all of it and certainly doesn’t replace human contact.”

Caring for older people can be intensely physical - in and out of chairs, washing, toilet trips, feeding. As well as being time-consuming, this is also expensive, despite the best efforts of authorities in paring costs to the bone. Yet human interaction is essential for older people. The carer’s visit might be the only human interaction the individual has all day, or even all week.

For Poole, there’s a delicate balance between using technology to leverage human resources, and replacing human contact all together - which would be a tragedy.

For example, using bar coding and scanning to replace paper on a medication round might save an hour, he says. “But those kind of gnaw away at the edges of the fact it’s resource-hungry with people, rather than give it a huge shakeup.

“That’s the challenge - the core cost whether it’s volunteer or paid staff time is people... it takes a long time to care for someone properly.”

Poole adds: “Unless there was some wonderful technology or solution so that someone who currently needs two people to bath them or to shower or take care of their personal needs can reduce that to one - [then] you’ve still got your human connection.”

Call us old-fashioned, but that looks like a call for robots to take over at least some of the hard work - but always in the company of a human minder. Which is probably exactly how we’d like it.

In the mean time, one piece of technology that crops up in all our discussions is the iPad, or tablet in general.

In Dundalk, residents use them for their wellness questionnaires and apps. In FOTE’s homes, they’re used to stimulate memories, particularly as dementia tightens its grip. It’s a truism that for dementia sufferers, more recent memories go first, so while an individual might have trouble recognising where they are or who their children are, they still recall what they were wearing on VE day.

Holding photo albums on iPads has become commonplace, stimulating the memories of older people. As well as being tactile, they are lightweight, portable, and don’t present the problems of mechanical keyboards, never mind the unintuitive interfaces of client PCs. All of which is instructive for any tech vendor looking to target this growing, yet sometimes vulnerable market.

That one can begin forgetting one’s nearest and dearest while still being able to skill up on new gadgetry is just one of the ironies of ageing, albeit one of the more tragic. ®

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