Community, connection and technology: ARIIA Day 1 highlights

Published on 5 July 2024

Dr Fiona Kerr, Founder, NeuroTech Institute & FOCUS.

Day 1 of ARIIA’s 2024 conference, Facing the Future, brought together a global perspective on ageing and aged care, headlined by conversations on technology, innovation and workforce development. 

On the news front, the event coincided with the Department of Health and Aged Care launching a brand new Data and Digital Innovation Strategy. 

The Minister for Aged Care Anika Wells said, The Strategy responds to the increasing use of data and digital technology to enhance older people’s well-being. This is a Strategy that puts the needs of older Australians first and lays the foundation for a digitally enhanced aged care system.”

You can read more about the Strategy announcement here

Technology will not replace human connection

Dr Fiona Kerr, Founder, NeuroTech Institute & FOCUS, explained that technology acts as a bridge for communication, allowing us to speak with family or friends virtually or via the phone. But as Dr Kerr added, hearing a voice or touching someone in person provides far more neurological benefits than a virtual conversation. 

She highlighted how human brains are built to connect with physical things through our senses, all helped by unpredictability, “Novelty isn’t doing the same thing on the screen every time,” she said.

Dr Kerr went on to share how studies show that people are healthier when they socialise and eat meals together with plenty of mental and physical benefits. Warm engagement from everyday interactions and positive moments can even add 7.5 years of life. 

Technology, of course, can be a great tool to help with human interaction. But she said it should never replace human interaction, and nor should it be the main form of engagement as older people may become too attached.

As for a final warning – the potential for data breaches – Dr Kerr said information can be kept on a local network to ensure security and privacy. International examples from countries with strong data security policies even show how it can result in more comfort over the data older people share with service providers. 

An international approach to community care

The panel for How can we enhance community and social-based care to benefit all generations?.

Australia is not alone in having a large number of older people who want to age at home, or within their own communities. During the panel discussion ‘How can we enhance community and social-based care to benefit all generations?’ international experts came together to share their insights. 

Dr Teddy Andrews J, Associate Professor, Department of Global Health, Prasanna School of Public Health (India), offered a researcher’s perspective on what works and what does not in India, with insights from a personal family-centric care perspective. 

He said roughly 110 million older people, out of a total cohort of 153 million, are cared for by family members. Aged care services are present but often limited to those with more money.

Other common examples include ‘daycare’ centres that provide connection and socialisation, while he spoke of a specific care offering called Pakal Veedu (Day Home) that offers community engagement opportunities and support for older people plus some basic health care

He identified many similar goals and opportunities like we see in Australia; more culturally appropriate care and a stronger aged care workforce. 

“Sustainability of family-centric care is still possible because there’s a large amount of families to support each other,” he said. 

In Canada, Julie Hamel, Managing Director, Balsam Impact, provided a vastly different perspective. She tackled the problem from the entrepreneur world. Ms Hamel is involved with an organisation that supports start-up businesses and individuals. If they have a problem, they can find support to research it and develop a practical solution.

“They look at all the questions related to the problems. All these questions, you have to go out and find the answers. Then we look at the solutions landscape. At the end of finding all the facts, it’s about finding the levers or the gaps to result in a solution,” she said.

She shared one example of an older woman in a regional Canadian town who realised her peers were socially isolated. After surveying each and every one of them, she spoke to the local council and established a cafe that soon became an intergenerational hub of socialisation.

Ms Hamel’s advice for those involved in aged care who want to solve a problem, big or small? “Look at all the stakeholders around the problem you want to address and go talk to them. You want to learn things you don’t know. You want to learn facts and not have assumptions.” 

Local innovators go intergenerational

While we’re on the topic of an intergenerational hub, two local aged care innovators explored potential solutions for all.

Emeritus Professor Anneke Fitzgerald, Founder and Chair, Australian Institute for Intergenerational Practice, spoke of the Old People’s Home for 4 year olds, a successful ABC program she was involved in that showcased how intergenerational connections can have a positive impact.

She also touched on the need to have a definition for intergenerational practice so it can be embedded in workplaces. This can benefit both older people, younger people, and workers themselves. 

“It has the potential to be a new career for someone […] to become an intergenerational practitioner,” she said. 

Professor Fitzgerald said awareness of what’s available is the first step to embedding intergenerational practice so everyone can be on the same page. 

“The biggest barrier I come across is the lack of vision in our leaders. Some of that thinking needs to change,” she added. 

Lastly, Lia Parsons, Founder, Miller’s Corner, said her journey through aged care has been guided by the simple question ‘what if?’. 

“What if we are creative and enhance community and social-based care to benefit all generations together,” she said.

“To feel at home and have a sense of belonging within my neighbourhood is hugely important for me.” 

Miller’s Corner, which started out as just two homes in Mount Barker, now features 15 parcels of land with 10 homes and five under development or construction. This intergenerational site sees plenty of interaction between the 18 residents of all ages. It’s one of many initiatives that Ms Parsons has engaged in to alleviate loneliness. 

“For me, it’s about engaging with an open mind, an open heart and a willingness to bring about change,” she added.

Although she said there is scope for a project like this to be scaleable, Ms Parsons called on the crowd to see what change they could inspire if they supported their neighbours and community in person. She said working together to support older – and younger – people can result in large scale change. 

“We have the responsibility too to consider our future at any age. Find out for yourself, explore it,” she said. 

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