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Time for a technological revolution in aged care

New Australian research has found that the more social interactions aged care recipients have, the better their cognitive function.

And researchers argue that the government should help keep aged care residents socially engaged using technology.

Academics from Macquarie University, along with the Department of Public Health and Primary Care and Cambridge University in the UK, found that social networks have a critical role in delaying dementia and higher social networks with family and friends was linked to better cognition in people who receive home and community based aged care services.

Interestingly, this was more prominent in male recipients.

Joyce Siette, co-author of the study and research fellow at Macquarie’s Centre for Health Systems and Safety Research, said that by using these findings we could theorise that social interaction would have similar effects on people in residential aged care.

“The older adults [in community care] are not as isolated as the ones you would read about in residential aged care,” she said.

“With that being said, the ones who are within aged care rarely receive visitors. And it is such a crucial function to be able to receive visitors and that would have an impact on, not just on their overall wellbeing, but also on their cognitive function.”

Siette believes that this could be particularly evident as aged care homes nationwide place themselves in lockdowns to prevent COVID-19.

“A lot of the residents in aged care facilities, as well as the clients who’ve been receiving community aged care services, have had to stop their social support services and visitors and contact with the external world,” she said.

“So, that would have had a tremendous impact on their wellbeing but also on their cognitive function. And that’s something that no one has looked at as an outcome in this cohort.

“It’s incredibly important that we need to maintain their social connections through alternative moves and to also measure the impact of these new interventions over time.”

Siette believes that now is the time for a “digital revolution” in aged care and she is calling on the government to lead the way.

The federal government recently gave out $1 million in funding to the Be Connected Program to distribute tablets and iPads to residential facilities in need and Siette believes this is a good start, but says now is the time to tackle and improve the digital proficiency of the aged care system.

“In 2018, the government interfered and gave laptops to all the Australian high school public students,” she said.

“Now I propose that the government should supply these tablets or computers [to aged care residents] to help them to engage with other people. But it’s not just that. You need the staff to support the delivery and training of the residents to use the technology and you need the infrastructure there.

“What’s the point of having a tablet if you don’t have broadband, for instance? So, all of that needs to be considered.”

In a recent opinion piece, Siette wrote that the COVID-19 crisis has taught us valuble lessons about the importance of social contact in society, especially for our elders, and we must build on these lessons in the the post-coronavirus future.

“To become a stronger, more resilient society both during and after the outbreak, we must focus on rebuilding central social foundations for vulnerable individuals in an innovative way.

“Once this viral crisis is over, our hope is that we do not forget the lessons learned about the value of creating and sustaining meaningful relationships with our oldest members of the public.”

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