Turning inner space into outer space

May 23, 2015

Technology promises relief for families worried about elderly relatives

During the four-hour drive to Vancouver, all kinds of scenarios played through my mind. None of them were good.

My 90-year-old mother had fallen and suffered a big gash on her forehead. She was found blood all over her and taken to the hospital for emergency treatment.

She survived all that and was apparently ready to go home, when my sisters realized she was talking gibberish — random words with no meaning.

Something else was going on. Hospital staff soon determined that she was having a stroke. Worse, there was nothing they could do about it because of the risks involved from the injury to her forehead.

All they could do was monitor her. She might pull through, she might not. And if she did survive, she might never again be able to communicate intelligibly.

As I walked into the hospital room, many family members were already gathered, and I was expecting the worst. Final goodbyes, maybe?

But no, there seemed to be a normal conversation going on.

Mom didn’t know I was coming, so it took her a few seconds realize it was me.

“You didn’t come all the way down here just for this,” she said.

It was hardly the joyous reception a son might have hoped for, but it was classic Mom and I knew the miraculous had taken place. She was OK.

There was massive relief, but of course the story doesn’t end there. How can we prevent this from happening again? Ultimately, she will die as we all must, but as with most families we feel compelled to ensure there is as little suffering as possible.

In a society where people are expected to move to where the jobs are, families have become fragmented by distance — making it difficult to care for elderly relatives who need someone to keep an eye on them.

Even when you’re in the same city it can be tricky if you have a full-time job and children to worry about as well. People in these circumstances are known as the sandwich generation.

The human touch can never be replaced, but technology has come a long way toward filling the gap. A wearable medic alert system, for example, has a button on it that can be pressed in case of emergency. It sets off automatically in the case of a hard fall.

That’s fine for emergencies, but what about the everyday stuff that can lead up to an emergency? An encouraging sign came with the recent announcement of a partnership between Apple, IBM and Japan Post to provide iPads to Japanese seniors loaded with apps that connect them to health services and their families.

The purpose of some of the other apps is bit vague, likely because they’re still under development, but they appear to be oriented toward monitoring and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Knowing that many seniors might be resistant to using iPads, the aim is to make the apps easy for them to use. This in itself could be a big hurdle, since some elderly people simply have no interest in learning how to use anything computer related.

When iPads were first introduced, part of the Internet went berserk with people decrying how it dumbed down computers. At the time I wrote a defence of simplified computing, and received a screed via email foretelling how iPads presaged the doom of human kind.

They have indeed brought about many changes — some good and not so good. But if this experiment in Japan works out, we’ll see that putting useful technology in the hands of people who otherwise have shunned it will improve the lives of two, sometimes three, generations of families.