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Older Australians benefit from tailored technology solutions

A new software making it easier for older Australians to access the Internet is being pilot-tested.

Marion Greer taps her tablet, and a ballet performance begins.

For the 86-year-old Sydneysider, visits to the Opera House are a thing of the past and accessing the arts on her old tablet proved nearly as tricky.

Now, however, she’s keen to explore a new device, configured with software aimed at seniors with no prior Internet experience.

"I've got this instantly, but I didn't with my other device," Ms Greer told SBS. "This seems to be much more accessible somehow."

Non-profit aged care provider Catholic Healthcare has rights to the first major Australian rollout of Breezie – software that simplifies the web, allowing searches on pre-selected topics such as 'Australian ballet'.

Such products signal a growing recognition that while Australians are living longer, longevity can bring with it loneliness and depression. For many older Australians, using technology to stay connected to others can be a major challenge.

“Our first client was Vince,” says Catholic Healthcare’s Chief Information Officer, Corey Snell.

“At 91-years-old, he’d never used a computer before, and seeing him engage with his grandson in a Skype conversation - I think that was absolutely beautiful."

Catholic Healthcare is footing the bill for the pilot, distributing the Samsung tablets to hundreds of clients across New South Wales and Queensland.

It won't reveal how much its clients will pay, once the software is past pilot stage.

But Mr Snell told SBS, a consumer tablet combined with the Internet forms a very inexpensive solution, unlike previous similar technologies that have failed due to their high cost and complexity.

It's just one step in a number of technology-based moves to improve aged care.

At a recent aged-care technologies conference in Melbourne, futurist Shara Evans spoke of the latest in robotics and so-called "wearable diagnostics".

"Well if I look at the very near-term, I would say the kinds of sensors we're starting to see in wearables … will become increasingly advanced over the next couple of years, with sensors that are able to detect a wide range of chemicals from the sweat on your body.

“Very flexible sensors that feel like a bandaid on your body, but are measuring all kinds of physiological symptoms, and are able to transmit that in real time to a caregiver if need be, or just for your own information, so you can track your physiology.”

Ms Evans said she's excited at the prospect of 'smart specs', electronic glasses being developed by a team at Oxford University.

Anthony Bacon, of aged-care services provider Feros-care, demonstrated a motorised spoon, designed for people suffering from Parkinson's Disease.

“So the Parkinson's shake is traditionally a circular motion,” he said. “And the idea is this will continually support clients to be able to feed themselves, and help support carers feed those clients as well."

To give peace of mind over elderly Australians living at home, in-home monitoring is already well-established in Australia.

It features sensors located in corners, cupboards, even the refrigerator, detecting movement or the lack of it; when necessary, a carer or 24-hour response centre is notified.

And the latest medical and security alarms have much greater range, as the National Broadband Network rollout forces a gradual upgrade from landline to 3G mobile.

This kind of home monitoring has become a back-up system for alarm pendants, while some older people actually prefer them, avoiding pendants that may identify them as vulnerable to falling over.

Aged-care technology advocate Professor Greg Tegart said this highlights a major problem.

“We need to understand more about (elderly Australians’) needs and how they react when we give them all these gadgets. Because too often, people develop something, and then just hand it out and say, 'well it's good for you, you know, you wear it'.

"But people who are the subjects of this like to have a say in it, and in how they develop it and how to use, and that's what we haven't been (doing) with much of our technology in the past."

Business seems to have responded to the consumer, putting more attractive, less obtrusive jewellery on the market.

Anthony Bacon of Feros-care demonstrated an attractive bangle which, when tapped, records and sends a message and GPS location to a loved one.

For Ms Greer, embracing the new means the ability to stay in touch with her grandchildren in England.

“I've got 10 of them, and a great-grandchild and I want to be in their life. So that's the way to go - modern technology - and you keep in touch with them. And I'm a very inquisitive person so I think I'll fiddle with this until I get there.”

This article was originally published by SBS News.