A University of Melbourne study is investigating the benefits and challenges of new technologies that aim to improve the social and emotional wellbeing of aged care recipients.

The four-year $750,000 Australian Research Council funded project aims to fill a gap in the evidence about technology beneficial for older people including how it can be used well and deployed ethically.

Lead researcher Dr Jenny Waycott said the study was looking at emerging technologies designed to enrich the lives of older people, such as such as virtual reality and social robots and other technology-based activities providing enjoyment and companionship.

Dr Jenny Waycott. Image: Paul Burston

“I want to learn from current practice and then do an in-depth analysis of particular examples before moving on to a design and deployment stage at the end of the project,” Dr Waycott told Australian Ageing Agenda.

Dr Waycott said she aimed to learn about and advance different activities being supported by technology and provide guidelines to the aged care sector about they can best use these technologies.

“I want to find out how we make sure that the technology is deployed in such a way that the benefits are realised and it is not experienced as a burden,” said Dr Waycott a senior lecturer and ARC Future Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

That burden can be related to having to learn something new, said Dr Waycott, who came across this outcome in previous research she conducted with Victorian not-for-profit aged care provider Benetas.

That study developed and trialled a photo sharing application for use among small groups of older people living independently at home and at risk of social isolation.

“They used the application to share photos with each other and we found this was a valuable way of building new social connection. They were building new friendships but there were also a number of challenges associated with using new technology in this space,” Dr Waycott said.

Some participants chose to withdraw because they found it difficult to learn how to communicate in this way and that difficulty created a sense of failure, she said.

Experiences of aged care professionals

In the first stage of the project now underway, Dr Waycott is conducting a survey to find out how emerging technologies such as virtual reality and social robots are currently being used in the aged care sector.

The survey also aims to discover what people working with these technologies in aged care find beneficial and challenging about them.

“I expect these will include a range of challenges not just relating to older people and their perception of using technology but also structural issues in aged care,” Dr Waycott said.

“We are aware of the enormous pressure aged care staff are under at the moment. This is another way that technology can be experienced as a burden for the staff.”

Dr Waycott is keen to hear from activities coordinators, diversional therapists, the people responsible for implementing social programs and management in residential, home and day aged care services.

The survey is being be sent out to aged care providers nationally.

Aged care individuals interested in sharing their experiences can also contact Dr Waycott directly, as can providers or facilities interested in running a technology trial later in the project.

Contact Dr Jenny Waycott at jwaycott@unimelb.edu.au.

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