Technology is currently revolutionising every other aspect of our lives, so when will it change social care? What potential does it have to transform the support services landscape?
The mounting pressure of an ageing population mean the resources currently at our disposal are shrinking. Using digital initiatives to ease the weight on already overstretched services has the potential to drastically improve what the UK can offer those in need of support.
So how far has the sector embraced technology and digital initiatives? Is it being invested in? Is it even trusted?
Meet Pepper, a friendly robot developed by the Japanese company SoftBank. Pepper is already a member of staff in coffee shops, banks and hospitals across Belgium, Canada and Japan.
When used in the care sector, these humanoids can assist in basic daily tasks, such as helping someone take their tablets, and can be programmed to suit the needs of whoever it is they are caring for. They can play tunes, display videos and can be uploaded with personalised content to help with individuals reminiscence.
Numerous trials and studies have been underway in the UK on the use of care robots, and Paro the robotic seal, another Japanese venture, has even been used by the NHS for the benefit of dementia patients.
South-on-Sea Borough council are the first local authority to buy and use Pepper.
Cllr Lesley Salter, executive councillor for health and adult social care, said: “Robots may seem like something from the distant future, but the technology is here and we strongly believe that Pepper can have a positive impact on social care as we continue to transform our services and make sure they are fit for the future.”
Pepper can also simply offer company, but this is still up for debate. There is anxiety around care robots being unable to substitute human warmth, but going on to replace workers all the same.
Salter went on to say: “We are absolutely clear that Pepper is not here to replace any of our people, but to complement and help the existing staff we have to deliver a better service by freeing up time for them to deal directly with people.”
Pepper’s main duties will initially be raising awareness to help progress the face of social care, showing the community the potential for widespread use of similar humanoids in the near future.
The robotics market is starting to shift from industrial use. By 2019, the International Federation of Robotics forecasts sales of 37,500 assistive robots, targeted specifically to support the care of people who are older or who have disabilities. This is an emerging market projected to have strong growth over the next 20 years.
Another very different kind of assistive technology currently taking off in social care is virtual reality (VR), an audio-visual simulation that gives less able care home residents the chance to explore the world again. This has been proven to reduce feelings of isolation and depression in users.
The company Reminiscience develop 360 videos, tailored by collecting information from families and care staff.
For people who are no longer able enough to even go outside, the experience can give a renewed feeling of agency, allowing an elderly person to feel as if they are visiting the beach, or attending a wedding on the other side of the world.
VR can also be a cognitive aid to someone with dementia, by creating virtual cues of their past, such as a childhood home, in ‘reminiscence therapy’. Such an experience has been linked with the slowing down of cognitive decline.
The headsets value in the care sector also goes beyond the comfort of the individual. The data from their use can be analysed for the purpose of spotting the onset of dementia by taking the user through daily tasks and measuring behaviour and detecting patterns.
There may be some wariness of the development of technology in a sector which must operate with human warmth and empathy and its core. The knee-jerk thought of you or your loved ones being under the care of cold, faceless robots, or else spending the days hooked up to a screen is definitely troubling, almost dystopian.
Anything that removes people from the equation of social care is uncomfortable, as it is supposed to be just that: social. But there is great possibility and scope for care enhancement through technology, both in terms of research opportunities and improving the quality of life of care users. Just as long as it is approached with an open mind, and an awareness of the importance of balance within care.