Four facts and one solution
Fact 1: Today, almost 100,000 Maltese people, one in every four, is aged 60+. All indications are that these numbers will continue to increase in the next couple of decades.
Fact 2: Unless an elderly person is chronically ill, s/he is unlikely to find a bed in a public or private nursing home.
Fact 3: Even if a private nursing home bed is available, its cost is about €50 per day and probably more depending on the state of health of its prospective occupant.
Fact 4: Because nursing homes are expensive to run and maintain, and not particularly profitable, no new ones are in the pipeline.
The question then is as clear as it is forceful. What is the best solution for the ever-increasing number of elderly men and women who are relatively healthy and who wish to continue living independent lives in their own homes?
All current research and the track records of countries at the cutting edge of this issue point sharply in one direction: exploiting the almost limitless potential of information technology to provide telehealth services directly to people in their own home.
The general idea is quite simple. It consists of hooking up an IT system to physical and medical monitoring devices both in the home and on the persons of the elderly themselves, thus opening up a whole new world of independence and safety for them.
This is not the world of primitive smoke detectors or telecare monitors. Helpful as these may have been, these devices were both limited to sounding an alarm. What is being developed today is something completely different. It is a whole new world in which an elderly person’s health, movements and well-being are monitored 24/7 by an IT nervous system, if you will.
From the pulse rate, to the frequency of pill taking, to sugar levels, to respiratory and heart conditions, and many more, the various devices in the household feed all the information to a central and secure information station.
At this IT central station, information is instantly interpreted and acted upon accordingly. If, say, a home device sends in a signal that the elderly person has not taken their pill or another device registers that s/he has fallen, the next of kin is immediately informed. If a medical device sends in a report on the sugar level or the heartbeat of the elderly person, the family doctor is instantly alerted. Using the same system, the doctor is also in a position to check on the person’s health, electronically and at will.
There are other substantial benefits.
Firstly, the system eliminates costly as well as time- perhaps life-consuming human error. Misdiagnosis becomes much less likely because, before the doctor makes his judgements, s/he would have had the benefit of examing all the information available on the system. Indeed, more than ever before, the doctor would have all the patient’s history available instantly, wherever s/he might be.
Secondly, the system’s capacity to monitor health 24/7 cuts out the waiting period for appointments, not to mention their expense. And, since appointments can take time to set and to produce results, the IT system has the upper hand of monitoring health effectively and efficiently by providing quality and detailed results.
Finally, on a broader level, the web holds the promise of hooking up the system with others, such as the e-health initiative launched by the government as well as yet more ambitious European level projects.
Clearly, then, this is the way forward for a growing, longer-living and healthier elderly population.
The author is a midwife by profession with a keen interest in old age issues.