I work in the human services field, assisting people with developmental disabilities and my adult daughter lives in one of our agency’s homes.  Caring for the disabled and elderly in long-term care settings is a noble and fulfilling calling, but the need for workers far exceeds the available labor pool. Entry-level workers receive low wages and it’s a challenging position that requires many skills, some of which are gifts such as compassion and empathy. So, the healthcare industry is ripe for “disruption.”

We see some early changes in the form of “smart” homes that take over some of the monitoring and caring steps of the workers and provide a more independent living setting. Machine learning in this field is at an early stage but it has the long-term potential to provide predictive care, such as capturing the biometrics that indicate the need for consultative care of a pre-diabetic. IoT sensors can help ensure the safety of a person as far as falls and adhering to a medical plan. Learning about the next steps of computing supports, which come under many labels such as Ambient Technology, Intelligent Agents and Pervasive Computing, gives me the hope that these will be the agents of disruption that we need.

 One of my work roles is to help people with disabilities learn about everyday personal technology – smartphones, tablets, smart speakers and more that can help with the tasks of daily living.  Apps abound that provide reminders, calm anxiety, connect with people remotely, etc., and that technology is remarkable to me, from my viewpoint of someone born in the 1950s.  However wonderful these advances may be, there is still the need for an “intelligent agent” (also referred to as a “social agent”) to tap into all of this technological potential.

While a person can get anxious in a new work setting, resulting in spiraling anxiety, there are apps that can provide stress reduction to calm the person.  However, in this early stage of technology, that stressed-out person has to have the presence of mind to press the app icon for the calming app on his smartphone and heed its instructions, all of which is a cognitive leap for many people. Or consider the person who falls into a depression and fails to connect with friends and family. Beyond getting a direct call from his support network, his initiation of a phone call/Zoom/FaceTime session relies on his conscious initiation of the call, which his depression might deny.

Focus on physical health and the safety of the individual are so important, but social and mental health are also critical needs.  The elderly and people with cognitive disabilities need so much stimulation to tap into their potential for a quality life.  I’ve learned so much from visiting care settings where the residents are clothed, fed, safe and healthy.  But are they “living” a full life? Is the TV showing a program they chose or is it just background noise? Shouldn’t life be more than “stasis”?

Here’s where the ideal of “intelligent agents” can intervene and stimulate the mind. Have these agents engage in a conversation about the person’s life – their work, their family and their travels. Offer to place a call for them to a friend.  Tell them that they haven’t moved from their chair for several hours and perhaps they would like to get up and start planning their dinner (and perhaps make suggestions based on the contents of the kitchen).

Of course, this will require incredible computing tools, and to further describe the challenge, we’re dealing with thousands of people with different cognitive and literacy levels, with a range of communication disorders, but it could be the answer for a problem that presently doesn’t have a solution. We can’t expect someone receiving low wages in a challenging environment to be the superhero combination of a nurse, companion, teacher, social worker, etc.

The adoption of smart homes is a way for the long-term care support industry to control costs and deal with the huge issue of their shrinking labor pool.  This is a step in the right direction, but only a first step.  We need to go beyond health and safety and develop technological tools to address the full person – their body, mind, and spirit.  This will require not only financial resources, incredible technological creativity, resolution of privacy issues, but also the societal agreement that everyone should be acknowledged as important, valued for their uniqueness, and given all the supports needed to enjoy a full life.