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Hannah R. Marston1, Andrew Sixsmith2, Joseph Coughlin3 and Sara Aghvami4

1Research Fellow at the Health and Wellbeing Strategic Research Area, The Open University, UK – @HannahRMarston

2Associate Scientific Director, AGE-WELL, Professor of Gerontology at Simon Fraser University, BC, Canada – @andrewsixsmith3 / @SFUGero / @sfu_starinst

3Director, MIT AgeLab, MA, USA – @josephcoughlin / @MITAgeLab

4Director, Best Buy Health, Canada – @saraaghvami1

The first-ever AgeTech Innovation Week was hosted by AGE-WELL, Canada’s technology and aging network, in October, 2021. This jam-packed conference brought a myriad of speakers from academia, business/industry, organisations, policy makers, media representatives, caregivers, and representatives from the Prince George Council of Seniors, together to share and discuss how AgeTech can improve the lives of our aging population.

The panel ‘COVID-19 AgeTech’ was featured as the third session of Day 1 and includes business and international leaders from the fields of gerontology, gerontechnology, and design. Our moderator Professor Joseph Coughlin is not only known for being the Director of MIT AgeLab, and his sterling work surrounding AGNES and Miss Daisy, but is also known for his dickie bows, being a vibrant speaker and author of ‘The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-growing, Most Misunderstood Market,’.

Professor Andrew Sixsmith is the Associate Director of AGE-WELL and is a Professor in the Department of Gerontology at Simon Fraser University. Sara Aghvami is the Director of Best Buy Health, Best Buy Canada and develops strategies and business models through various partnerships with health care providers and care organisations, health professional and researchers to ensure there are positive benefits to consumers, businesses, and communities. Dr Hannah R. Marston is a research fellow at the Health and Wellbeing Strategic Research Area at the Open University (UK), and over a 11-year period has developed a research agenda surrounding digital technologies, practices in society and across the life course.

The purpose of this session was to share and discuss how technology has impacted and is being used by people in society during the pandemic, drawing on existing data from respective research studies conducted by Sixsmith and colleagues, and the work by Marston and colleagues (Marston, et al., 2020b; Marston & Morgan, 2020; 2021). In addition to hearing how business such as Best Buy were at the forefront of provision, we also discussed rapid response to the issues and concerns surrounding appropriate technologies for older adults.

What we have witnessed during the pandemic is how it has exacerbated the use and adoption of technology, being a catalyst for market changes and attitudes. Moreover, it has highlighted our dependency and the importance of technology in our day-to-day lives from placing our grocery orders online (especially for those people who were instructed to self-isolate/shield) to accessing educational materials (across all levels of education) to maintaining familial and social connections (Marston, et al., 2020c). However, we believe what the pandemic did do in society was move technology forward by 5-7 years, whereby, were we not forced to take-up various technologies and platforms – we would have still been moving at a similar pace as we were in a pre-pandemic society.

There has been challenges which are still ongoing for many marginalized people and communities in our respective society. Such challenges include the cost of technology adoption, especially for people who are on fixed incomes, and for people who have limited to no digital skills or literacy. Both challenges impact people greatly, and the latter especially so in people who do not have the confidence to learn a new skill. In a pre-pandemic society some people may have stated very clearly that they did not see the purpose or benefit to using technology. They may have felt disconnected, left behind and thus, experienced a negative impact on one’s health and wellbeing (House of Lords, 2021; Marston, et al., 2020d). Understanding how AgeTech can positively enhance the lives of our aging population is integral to ensuring everyone (who chooses to) can be connected – whether it is for health monitoring, to maintain social connections (Freeman, et al., 2020), or to control and conduct certain activities in the house (e.g., medication reminders, lighting, music etc. (van Hoof, et al., 2021; Marston & van Hoof, 2019; Marston & Samuels, 2019).

However, we do have to start exploring and understanding the needs, challenges, benefits and perspectives of technology from younger cohorts such as Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z (Marston & del Carmen Miranda Duro, 2020; Marston & van Hoof, 2019; Marston 2019; Brown & Marston, 2018). Because without the planning now, we will in the next 10-20 years be in the same situation as we are today with our current aging population. Whereby, we will be scrambling around, and reacting because there are limited and insufficient understandings of cohorts with different needs and expectations.

AGE-WELL is combatting the pre-existing narratives surrounding our aging populations, facilitating, and bridging various collaborations across Canada between academia, industry, and stakeholder organisations. Taking and implementing interdisciplinary research, leading to evidence-based results, across different physical environments (e.g., rural, urban, city) and settings (e.g., home, care settings etc.) will in turn lead to myth busting. Affording independent living (Peek, & Wouters, 2016) is crucial and one of the approaches is via remote/activity monitoring (Theogardiou & Gritzalis, 2016; Sixsmith, & Gutman 2013; Marston, 2016) enabling children to ensure their parent (who maybe geographically displaced) is safe, is a positive step forward (Freeman, et al., 2020; Marston, et al., 2019).

Empowerment is integral to our aging populations, including younger cohorts who will be perceived as aging in the future. What we must keep in mind is, our current aging population are the very cohort(s) that were the first to use Xerox machines, the television set, and other domestic appliances. Furthermore, for many older people now, they were the cohort that were exposed to entertainment mediums such as videogames, and may well have played them in their youth (Marston & Graner-Ray, 2016). Therefore, for some older people (in Canada) they have the curiosity and confidence to continue using new technologies. But there has to be the consideration that they may be apprehensive about learning a different approach to engagement and interaction. For some people recalibrating their mental models (White, et al., 2020) is daunting, and therefore, we must ensure their confidence is empowered. Moreover, design plays a critical role here, and designing for all rather than for a specific cohort which in turn may reduce take-up has to be considered. Participatory workshops, co-creation-and-design affords all voices (younger and older) to be heard and for their input to be implemented into products and services.

As the pandemic continues we are starting to hear the prospects of Covid-19 passports being introduced into respective societies (Marston, et al., 2021). From a UK standpoint this concept has received mixed reviews, and across the four nations (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) the venues of where Covid-19 passport will be needed, will likely vary (BBC News, 2021). However, as previously noted by Marston and colleagues (2021), implementing this approach may increase the inequality already existing in our societies because for one reason or another (as previously noted) people choose not own a digital device that would carry a vaccine passport QR code.

Initiatives such as AGE-WELL have the ability and opportunity to reframe pre-existing notions surrounding our aging populations, while it is the responsibility of all partners involved in respective research projects to ensure that all voices are heard and appropriate solutions are created, and available.

The AgeTech Innovation Week has led the way in solely holding a conference with a myriad of speakers, knowledge exchange and discussions in a bid to not only showcase the expertise within this arena, but also to offer a call to action in this space. This weeklong conference has offered a space to move existing narratives, debates, and behaviours forward well into the 21st century.

AGE-WELL has a YouTube playlist where all sessions from the AgeTech Innovation Week are available.