Reflecting on the INVITE Project – how can assistive technology really make an impact?
By Helena Doyle, Stonewater and Vikki McCall, University of Stirling
In 2021, we were part of the team that launched INVITE (promoting INclusive living vIa Technology-Enabled support), a project aiming to investigate how assistive and everyday technology can improve older residents’ quality of life and sustain inclusive communities.
Funded by the Longleigh Foundation, the research has been undertaken by the University of Stirling in partnership with Stonewater to explore how technology can maximise opportunities to support older people to live well and safely – including those with age-related conditions such as dementia.
An initial INVITE Scoping Review published early in the project created the foundations for the project and highlighted the need for more person-led solutions when it comes to technology-enabled support. With the support of Stirling’s academic research team to facilitate the project, four Stonewater retirement living schemes in England took part in the research, comprising of more than 100 customers and nearly 30 colleagues.
Did we make an ‘impact’?’
The short answer to this, is yes! From this project we were able to do something rather rare, which was go through the full process of information gathering, technology introduction and impact analysis. Effectively, we asked people what would be helpful, gave them a suitable gadget, and then followed up with them to see how they got on.
We firstly asked participants what was easy or challenging in their lives, then provided them with the technology that might help them most. This ranged from higher-tech gadgets such as iPads and Amazon’s Alexa, to small pieces of tech such as kettle tippers, jar openers and shoehorns.
Having left the devices and gadgets with customers to test, we then went back to interview them and ask about their experiences. The results were very positive, with many reporting increased wellbeing, social connections and feelings of independence being the predominant outcomes. However, it was the impact of the low-tech solutions that were most surprising to not just participants in the research, but us too. Items such as accessible cutlery, jar openers and hot water dispensers were key items that significantly improved the participants’ everyday living.
One of our favourite items included the hot water dispenser. This was an item that helped a lot of customers who took part, many of whom had painful arthritis in their wrists. One customer shared that she had previously had to rely on her spouse to make cups of tea, but that the hot water dispenser made it possible for her to make a cup of tea any time she liked.
Such a simple – and taken for granted – activity, which you can imagine makes a vital difference to someone feeling independent. The added bonus from this piece of tech was the reported energy savings – as it only boils the exact amount of water needed.
Going beyond the gadget
A key learning point from the project has been that success in implementing assistive technology solutions should not necessarily focus on the gadget itself.
Often people start with ‘the gadget’, but INVITE has shown that people-led solutions can lead to unexpected and impactful support opportunities.
While the technology being introduced is of course important, it is only a part of the overall process if looking to effectively find solutions that improve an individual’s wellbeing. The process of successful facilitation does not begin, or end, with the technological gadget. It is the people involved in the process, both residents and on-site colleagues, that are essential to the success and impact of effective introduction and facilitation of technological support.
How do we learn from the project and apply in practice?
- Frontline teams in the social housing sector know their residents best. They know what matters to them and what their day-to-day challenges are. They can have open and impactful conversations with residents around their use (or not) of technology and the kinds of support they might need.
- Some of the richest learning from this project has been that the smallest things make the biggest difference to someone’s life and that is ultimately what matters most.
- We have also learned that this does not have to be a high-cost exercise, as some of the gadgets that were purchased throughout INVITE were £5, but significantly improved someone’s quality of life.
- Finally, many of us have different ideas of what technology is. From “whizzy robots” to body-worn devices, however, sometimes the word technology can be off-putting, and we realised that talking in practical terms really helps.