Commissioning for healthy ageing

Posted on Wednesday 19th February 2014

Jennifer Lynch, Health Services Management Centre

The Birmingham Policy Commissions are providing a way for the University’s academics to link with leading figures in the public, private and third sectors in a bid to ‘generate new thinking’ on key contemporary policy issues. The third commission was charged with considering ‘Healthy Ageing in the 21st Century’ and the focus was very much on exploring how to remain healthy and flourish in later life rather than on experiences of ill-health. A further key component to the research was to investigate the implications of ageing for super-diverse populations, such as those that make up multicultural cities like Birmingham.

Developing public policies that promote healthy ageing and support people to manage and maintain their good health into later life is an essential but multifaceted and often thorny objective, and the key findings and recommendations from the Commission’s report display no illusions about the work required along the way. Evidence was gathered from a wide range of contributors, from charities to community and faith groups; public policy experts to academic researchers. From this, the report concluded that the experience of ageing is a complex one that is only loosely associated with how old someone is, and that different cultures think about ageing in different ways, but that these differences are not readily understood by policy makers or researchers.

As a society we are facing the potentially devastating impact of an ageing population that will not be able to access traditional health, care and support services in the way that people were expecting or hoping. This realisation requires a sea change in our collective minds about how to plan for future needs. Equally we must become more attuned to planning for a longer, healthier, ageing process and this means thinking differently about how we maintain good health for ourselves and support older people to stay well, maximise their independence and feel valued in our communities.

‘Independence’ is undoubtedly the buzzword of the community-based care professions and policy makers alike. It is also central to the aspirations of older people, who unvaryingly see it as intertwined with the ability to remain living in their own homes for as long as possible. One way to tackle this, and a key finding from the Commission, is to invest in technological support. Local authorities and NHS services already fund ‘telecare’ and ‘telehealth’ that include devices to detect falls, help manage medication, provide memory prompts, and monitor movement and vital signs. Nevertheless, a recent broadening of ideas about the potential for tele-technologies to support people’s wellbeing more generally opens the door to a more holistic approach to the benefits of technology.

As smart phones and tablets are becoming more common household items, apps and other software-based innovations are being developed to enable people to monitor their own health and activity. This is complemented by advancements in smart home technology aimed at improving people’s quality of life through the management of their home environment, usually through sensors focused on, among other things, energy efficiency, security, and biometrics. Furthermore, in this age of social networking it would be short sighted to say the least not to consider the potential benefits for older people of social interaction through virtual participation in online communities or video-mediated contact between friends and family.

The oft recited mantra that older people are unwilling to engage with technology has been refuted by a number of studies – the salient points are that devices must be user friendly, accessible through better and more comprehensive internet services, and ‘backed up’ by real people.