How can technology shape the way we provide care?

Family and care service support for the vulnerable has yet to benefit from the technological developments of our modern world

  • Madeleine Starr


Councils have been testing the water with telecare systems, such as this one in West Lothian, Scotland. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Caring is going to happen to all of us; so is it time we dragged support for families who care into the 21st century?

Social media, smartphones and online tools have brought about huge shifts in the way many of us manage our lives – work, childcare, socialising and shopping. But the potential for technology to change how families and care services support ill, frail or disabled people has yet to be realised.

Society and care services are still adjusting to our new “beanpole families” – long, thin structures, with multiple generations and fewer children in each generation, often living in different parts of the country; which mean that, as we get older or if we fall ill, we no longer have wide networks of support nearby.

This means that many of us are becoming distance carers – helping to support older or disabled relatives who are at the other end of a motorway. Three million of us juggle work with caring for an ill, frail or disabled loved one. This can mean frequent phone calls, often in your lunchbreak at work, to check that an older parent or disabled relative is safe and well, providing reassurance on both sides. It might mean taking mornings off to do the hospital run or be there for a GP appointment, or spending your weekend dashing back and forth across the country to deal with a minor crisis.

This is precisely where, in other aspects of our lives, technology has stepped in to save time, money and stress.

Many of us use shared calendars to check colleagues’ availability at work – why don’t we have access to this kind of technology between family members when we are planning who is going to look after mum this weekend?

Booking holidays, buying insurance, browsing reviews of products and services has become second nature for many families. Yet if you want to book care for an adult, disabled child or ill partner because you are going away for a few days, the technology simply isn’t there.

Some progress has been made. To different extents, local councils are testing the water with telecare and telehealthcare – in-home monitoring and health technology. This existing use of technology, and other examples of innovation, have shown some of the real opportunities technology presents to deliver on independence for people needing care, peace of mind and reduced stress for family members, and potential savings for public services by reducing avoidable hospital and residential care admissions.

But we have been slow to truly embrace technology in this aspect of our lives, which highlights a real challenge for those of us who work in the care sector. For too long, negative perceptions of ageing, caring and disability have meant we have managed care as a hidden and private issue or a “burden” to be managed – rather than as a fundamental shift in our society and families that presents real opportunities as well as challenges.

As the government prepares to publish a white paper on the future of social care, we need to seize the opportunity to shift these perceptions. Carers UK has launched a new project with partners including Microsoft and the Technology Strategy Board to look at how technology has the capacity not only to respond to our changing lives and better support families who care, but also to deliver innovation and growth in the technology market.

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