Article: The answer to the social care crisis is not just more costly care homes

Ageing populations across the Western world are creating new pressures on policy-makers as they wrestle with the question of how to create a sustainable social care system. From Royal Commissions in Australia to summits between the Chancellor and Prime Minister in the UK, a fully workable solution has yet to appear.

Coronavirus has recentered our lives around our homes. They have become our offices, gyms, restaurants and so much more. The potential of our homes as a place of care, however, remains vastly underutilised. Through new technology, a bit of creativity and a renewed way of thinking about care, many more people could stay living safely and comfortably in their own home even after their health demands mean care is required. In turn, this could mean improved choice, costs minimised and quality improved.

Older people and new technology could be a perfect match when it comes to assisted living. Through a web of sensors, monitors and artificial intelligence, what is called ‘remote care’ could revolutionise how the elderly are looked after.

With little effort, this technology can deliver real-time monitoring of an individual’s health and medical needs, track physical activity and falls, and embed new ways of measuring the general wellbeing of a person. Leaps in the effectiveness of wearable tech, voice-enabled systems, and video technology all make this possible. That is before we get to the potential use of virtual/augmented reality and automation.

What is more, the data gathered by this technology, coupled with artificial intelligence and machine learning, could create insights that predict when an individual might need help, identify what interventions work best, and create new strategies to deal with a person’s care needs.

The fundamental principle is much simpler than the technological jargon would imply. Families and professional care providers could know when a person needs help, what they need and how best to deliver it, without having to be in the same room. It is an evolution of and old idea – community care – using new technology.

Three key reasons motivate an inquiry into the use of technology in this sector:

Appetite

Almost everyone can give you an example of a family member not wanting to go into a care facility. There are an equal number of anecdotes relaying how a family felt guilty about “passing” the burden by sending a loved one to a care home.

That instinct has only seemed to grow following the horrendous impact of Covid-19 on care homes. A recent survey for two UK think tanks – IPPR and Policy Exchange – found that 31% of people said the pandemic meant they were less likely to seek residential care for an elderly relative in future. 40% of those aged over 65 were less likely to consider it for themselves.

Quality

The quality of residential care varies hugely. Social care wages remain low in most countries and specialist training is patchy. This does not detract from the hard-work of the many dedicated carers that work in the sector.

However, data and analytics produced by the better use of technology could drive improved outcomes in the sector. Consistency, transparency and innovation is all be produced through the smarter use of data – and with more tech comes more data. This could be a significant dividend for carers and those they look after.

Cost

Residential care is costly to the state and often to the individual also. According to the UK’s leading age concern charity, AgeUK, costs average around £600 a week for a care home and over £800 a week for a place in a nursing home. When accounting for the various grants and support schemes, the price of residential care is already huge and a growing cost to the public purse.

Care delivered at home is – to put it simply – cheaper than care delivered in a specialist facility. And with the predictive analytics and economies of scale created by technology, these costs will diminish further. So what if the answer to the care crisis did not lie in building more pricey care homes but in keeping people out of such facilities by supporting them properly in their homes?

Of course, some people will need the 24/7 support of residential care. But, the experience of countries which have sought to encourage at-home-care is that it has been effective in keeping people out of the more expensive option of care homes for longer. The think tank Demos recently highlighted Scotland as a case study – where all home-based care costs to the individual have been removed. The country has seen a significant up-swing in the number of people who are choosing to stay in their home and receive the care they need. 

Technology will not be the silver bullet to the looming care crisis facing many countries across the world. We will always need physical care facilities and we will need to find a way to pay for the care that will be delivered – be it through remote solutions or in a purpose-built care home. But there are technology-based solutions that policy-makers can look to that will reduce costs and improve outcomes with an almost immediate impact.

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