What is assistive technology?
Assistive technology is a technical name for devices and gadgets that are designed to help people living with memory issues, cognitive problems or sensory impairment to carry out daily tasks and live a more self-sufficient life.
It may be offered by your local council as part of a care package, but the technology is also increasingly available to buy yourself.
There’s a fair bit of jargon in use that can be confusing if you’re looking into gadgets that can help with later life care. Assistive technology as a whole is sometimes referred to as ‘technology enabled care’. Other terms you’ll come across are ‘telecare’ and ‘telehealth’, which are different ways of using technology to monitor someone in their own home. We cover these in more detail in separate articles.
How assistive technology can help
Assistive technology can help with many aspects of life for an older person, including:
- daily household tasks
- personal safety and security
- remembering appointments
- keeping track of your whereabouts or helping you find your way around
- keeping in contact with friends or family
- taking medication.
In the same way that mobility aids help those with a physical impairment to remain active, assistive technology helps people with a cognitive or sensory impairment to get on with their daily life.
Different types of assistive technology
If you’re a carer for someone with memory problems, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, or are living with those conditions yourself, there are a wealth of assistive technology products available to help you or your loved one stay safe and independent.
These technology types are covered in more detail in separate articles.
- Telecare systems use sensors placed around the home to remotely monitor the safety of users. Alerts can be sent to a 24/7 monitoring centre, carer or family member if there’s a problem. Telecare sensors can tell you, for example, when someone hasn’t moved for some time, has got out of bed and hasn’t got back in again or has left the gas on or their bath running.
- Personal alarms allow people to call for assistance if they have an accident or a fall at home.
- GPS trackers: a wearable tracker that includes an alert button, fall detector and two-way radio. The wearer can call for assistance or can be located if they have a fall or they travel outside of a preset ‘safe zone’.
- Memory aids come in many different forms. Some remind you what day of the week it is or when to take your medication; others can play you a personalised voice message when you pass by a sensor.
- Telehealth provides remote access to some health care services for people with long-term health conditions.
- Home safety and security devices include gadgets such as smart doorbells and home security systems.
- Technology for keeping in touch, such as specialist phones that are easier to use for an older person or someone with memory problems, as well as apps to help you communicate.
Assistive technology can also come in the form of clever adaptations to everyday devices that help disabled people to use them more easily. Good examples of this are accessible mobile phones, specially adapted TV remote controls with extra-large buttons and voice-activated smart home technology.
How to choose the right technology for you
Choosing assistive technology and telecare is very personal: devices that are right for one person may not necessarily be useful for another. The technology can also seem complex at first and it’s vital that you choose products that are well suited to your needs.
Because of this, it’s a good idea to contact an assistive technology expert, such as an occupational therapist (OT), to assess what type is right for you. It’s also worth asking your local council’s social services department for advice on what options are available in your area – and if you haven’t already had one, make sure you ask for a free needs assessment. Your GP may also be able to offer useful guidance.
Don't be put off doing your own research and buying simple assistive technology products yourself, but you should be aware that – in more complicated situations – it’s good to have expert advice to get exactly the right gadget.
10 questions to ask when choosing assistive technology
- Does the person who will be using it understand its purpose, and are they happy to use it?
- Will the product be suitable for the person I’m buying it for – for example, does it require fine finger movement, need good eyesight or hearing?
- Do I need to change batteries or charge them, and how often do I need to do this? Is there a backup battery available in case of a power cut?
- What are the limitations of the product – for example, does a pager system cover the distance you expect it to?
- Does the device require someone to remember to wear it or carry it with them? Is this realistic?
- Does the gadget require a power socket? Is there one near where it will be used, or will it leave a trailing cable?
- Is it likely to be fully effective if the person lives with other people or pets, for example, who might trigger the system?
- Does it need someone with DIY skills or a professional person – such as an electrician – to install it?
- Is it robust enough – for example, could it be dropped and carry on working?
- How much will it cost, is there only an initial cost or an ongoing charge and what happens if you fall behind on payment?
For more tips on buying and choosing assistive technology and other independent living devices, including information about retailers and organisations that supply the technology, visit our guide on How to buy independent living equipment.
Getting help with the cost of assistive technology
Assistive technology can be funded as part of a local authority care package. However, this involves a needs assessment to determine whether or not you qualify for support. You will need to contact your local social services department, which will arrange an assessment with a social worker or OT, depending on your needs. Note that different local authorities organise their assessments and provisions in different ways.
Alongside using technology, making adaptations to the home is another effective way of ensuring you can stay safe and independent for longer. Read further guidance on how to fund home adaptations.
If you're registered disabled or have a chronic health condition, you can claim a VAT exemption on a range of assistive technology products, which can save you a significant amount of money. Find out more in Claiming a VAT discount.
Pros and cons of assistive technology
Assistive technology can be a valuable ingredient in helping someone to stay living at home, even if they are experiencing memory problems or frailty. But it should rarely be seen on its own as the only solution. Ideally the technology is just one part of a wider overall care plan.
Read more about the pros and cons of using technology to support independent living in later life:
Telecare systems make use of the latest technology to help people in later life continue to live independently at home.
Read about how personal alarms can help older people feel safer at home and remain independent for longer.
Assistive technology can help you live with greater independence, but it’s not a replacement for one-to-one support.