WITH an ageing population and increased demand for services, local authorities across the country are facing a looming social care crisis.

As councils warn of a £2.3bn funding gap in social care by 2020, the proposed shake up of social care funding announced in the March budget has yet to materialise and the anticipated government green paper has been postponed until summer 2018 to allow further consultations to take place on a long-term solution to the crisis.

While additional funding is certainly key, it has become clear that emphasis now needs to be placed on exploring alternative avenues to forestall the crisis. Welcoming the advance of innovation and technology – and specifically harnessing that already used to great effect in other industries – is one such route.

In the statement announcing the postponement of the green paper, MP Damian Green stated: “Our vision for care must also incorporate the wider networks of support and services which help older people to live independently…It must consider how care is provided at present and challenge the system to embrace new technology, innovation and workforce models which can deliver better quality and value.”

The National Care Forum has also recently advocated the use of innovation and technology, saying: “NCF particularly believes that there are significant gains to be made through the adoption of new technologies to enhance quality care.”

When it comes to community care for those living with dementia in particular, technology has an incredibly important role to play in promoting independence and providing a better quality of life. And indeed, the world of so-called ‘assistive technology’ – innovative support to improve or maintain wellbeing, health or safety – is already fast-developing.

In Southend for example, a humanoid robot named ‘Pepper’ has been developed to run ‘reminiscence sessions’ with dementia sufferers, able to sense mood and adapt accordingly. Similarly, a Department for Health-funded project is currently underway in Surrey to explore how the Internet of Things can be used to provide better community care for those living with Alzheimers. It looks at how health and environmental data can be obtained from a number of connected devices and sensors around the home and processed to provide real-time feedback, and reassurance, to family and carers.

Using technology – and notably the opportunity that big data processing provides – in this way is a huge and welcome step forward, but is it enough? There still appears to be one fundamental piece of the jigsaw missing. The vast majority of new technology currently being applied in the care of those with dementia relies on the individual being in the home. To date, there has been little use of innovation to assist a person with dementia to comfortably and safely travel away from their familiar environment, which is crucial when it comes to the aim of promoting greater independence.

It is a big issue. Research carried out with dementia groups, clinicians and healthcare professionals has identified that a lack of confidence to travel directly contributes to an increased lack of independence and feeling of isolation in persons suffering from dementia. An inability to retain or interpret constantly changing information exacerbated by external stressors makes decision-making impossible when travelling and can inevitably lead to overwhelming panic and anxiety. Community transport and other local services can be an important crutch, but they can be difficult to find particularly in the light of funding cuts.

It is clear that there is a need to develop technology which specifically assists travel, and unite it with existing innovation being used in the home for a fully joined-up innovative approach. In North Wales, one tech company has brought expertise and innovation from other industries to do just that in partnership with the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board.

Using complex data processing honed in the online advertising and e-commerce industry, Zipabout is developing a cutting-edge highly personalised travel assistance platform to alleviate anxiety and empower those with dementia to travel.

The travel assistant, which will initially be user tested as an app before being delivered as a platform for transport providers to embed in their own systems, will include real-time door-to-door journey planning across all modes of transport, including community transport where possible.

It will identify real-world stress points in any journey, such as potential overcrowding, delays and complex interchanges, and offer pre-journey reminders to travel with important items such as a bus pass, blue badge and the like.

During the journey itself, the underlying data platform will constantly monitor the situation, offering real-time wayfinding if the user gets lost or delayed, audio and visual reassurance, ‘next-steps’ guidance and the ability to share location with family and carers.

The travel assistant is a unique application of the big data technology which Zipabout has already developed and is deploying in different ways with many of the big transport operators. Its person-centric approach with all information fully tailored to the individual is crucial when considering how dementia is such a broad umbrella term and the experience of living with the condition varies enormously from person to person.

By creating a platform which can be used by any individual, care or transport provider through any channel inside the home through devices such as Amazon’s Alexa or outside on any journey, Zipabout has taken huge strides towards removing the unknown from the stress of travelling, promoting independence and perhaps offering a long-term solution to our community care crisis.

Author: Alex Froom

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