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Ageing well with technology

Good design can transform the lives of older people.

“I’d go all up the back lanes and come out on top of the cliffs almost. And I’d sit there with my book and my lunch, and in between I would see the steamer boats go by.” Val was recalling her experience of being evacuated as a child to Devon during the Second World War. For her, it was a time when she could get a packed lunch and explore the cliffs around where she was staying. It’s an experience she has been able to revisit more recently with the use of a virtual reality headset. “The best thing is it makes you realise you haven’t forgotten it all,” said Val.

We live in an age where the digital world mirrors much of our day-to-day lives, providing chances for exploration, connection and recreation, from gaming to gatherings. However, those opportunities to lead a rich and full digital life are not available to everyone, particularly older adults. Yet older adults could benefit from technologies like virtual reality for new and familiar experiences, helping keep people active and connected as they age.

“We’re particularly interested in keeping older adults mentally and physically active,” said Hannah Bradwell, digital health research fellow at the University of Plymouth’s Centre for Health Technology. The universities of Plymouth and Stirling have been working in partnership with industry to do just that through the Generating Older Active Lives Digitally (GOALD) project The GOALD team brought together older and younger people in co-design sessions and worked with community partners to ensure there was a diverse range of people and specific needs represented. “Technologies can fail because of poor design, which stems from a lack of understanding of the actual requirements of the expected end-users,” Bradwell added.

The groups went through a phased approach, explained Leonie Cooper, a digital health research associate on the project. The participants chose to explore and test from a menu of technologies, from wearables and robotics to virtual reality headsets. “We would either do that in the comfort of their own homes or care homes, or we would take technologies to community groups for them to try,” Cooper said.

Once the older participants were familiar with the technologies, the GOALD project moved into the co-design phase. “We would then come together to really understand what the priorities were and what older users liked and didn’t like,” Cooper said. For example, the participants were encouraged to think what they would want from technology that would increase physical activity and give them access to places if they had an unlimited budget.

One example was a treadmill linked to a virtual reality headset allowing users to walk through a virtual reality environment. The idea was that the content seen inside the headset would motivate older adults to use the treadmill to explore the environment. However, participants said that it was not designed for people with restricted mobility or sensory impairments, and were worried about the risk of falls.

“They suggested that the treadmill could be a seated one and that people could still get the benefits of being active and moving their legs while sitting down,” Bradwell said. They sent that feedback to the company, which redeveloped the technology to meet those needs and adapted the treadmill to be a sit-down experience. This means it will be more effective in getting older people to become more active because it has been co-designed with them.

The project areas, principally Cornwall and Stirlingshire, shared a common set of challenges for older people, being predominantly rural areas where the lack of connectivity raises the risk of isolation, explained Katharine Willis, Professor of Smart Cities and Communities at the University of Plymouth. The treadmill-linked VR headset allows friends and family to share a walk using virtual reality even if they are hundreds of miles apart, so helping tackle isolation as well as increasing physical activity.

The project also looked at online platforms for delivering classes and sports reminiscence. “They had live feeds and tours around artefacts in museums, but done remotely so that people didn’t have to leave their home, care home, or community group,” said Bradwell.

There was also a set of digital cards about particular sportspeople and matches, and people would have really strong memories about them which could trigger conversation about those shared experiences, stimulating the memory and forging new connections between people who might otherwise be at risk of isolation.

“In healthcare technology it is often the case that a company will develop a product and deliver it and they might evaluate it, but it’s not really a participatory approach,” said Willis. “It makes business sense to develop products that really fulfil those needs, whether that technology is being used in health and care settings, or in the home,” Bradwell added. “There are many small companies and developers now that are keen to work within the ‘grey market’ for older adults, given an ageing population.”

Co-design at an early stage of product development can have a transformative impact on whether those products succeed. “One of the key findings that we’ve had is technologies should actually be adaptable so the technology can change and adapt with the person as their needs change,” Bradwell said.

GOALD is now moving into the next stage and working with companies that engaged well with the feedback and showed a commitment to developing technologies for older people. It has just awarded some small grants to companies to facilitate that work and help them improve their products and services.

For businesses that are looking to take a similar journey, GOALD is creating some toolkits to help them better understand the needs of older people and how to involve them in co-design. The ultimate hope for GOALD and its legacy is “for developers to really engage in co-design and have a user-centred approach when they are designing technologies for health and social care”, said Bradwell.

The GOALD project is funded via the UK Research and Innovation Healthy Ageing Challenge programme, delivered by Innovate UK and the Economic Social Research Council (ESRC). For more information about the GOALD project visit:
Publication of the GOALD toolkits will be announced via social media:
– Twitter: @GOALDStirPlym
– Instagram: @goald_research
– Facebook and LinkedIn: search “GOALD”
SMEs interested in collaborating with the GOALD team can get in touch at

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