Thanks to technology, care-giving for seniors, the ill and the disabled is now possible even if their loved ones are far away. But can it replace the human touch?

The fourth convocation of the Chettinad Academy of Research and Education was different things to different people. But members of the audience were united in their appreciation of the speech delivered by V. Shanta, chairperson, Adyar Cancer Institute. “Today, science and technology are so dominant in medical practice that care-giving is slowly disappearing,” she said. “Care-giving is crucial in the patient-doctor relationship.” She called for doctor-patient relationships to be included in undergraduate/post graduate medical education.

Care-giving is going digital. A USA Today story tells of how four sisters, worried about their 80-year-old father when he didn’t return their calls (he was gardening all day at his yard outside), at once bought him a wireless monitoring kit, whose six accelerometers detect movement. Now, the retired urologist has sensors on his keychain, refrigerator and his favourite television-watching chair, and the daughters check his activity patterns through the brand’s website.

Caring for seniors, the ill and the disabled is now enveloped in state-of-the-art technology. Elders can now live in digitally-connected, smart retirement homes, or re-do their homes with early detection / warning systems that connect them instantly to hospitals and families living away. These homes can be programmed to send routine health data to doctors wirelessly, so the elderly can be spared of painful visits to hospitals.

At the next level, says the USA Today article, smart homes will play medical nanny, keeping an account of everything, from pill-taking routines to signs of imminent crises. Kids can gift their parents bottle caps that glow to remind them of medicine-taking times, chairs that record vital signs, carpets that analyse walking patterns, and anticipate physical degeneration and mental illness. Or put a sensor on a pickle jar — if it moves daily, the occupant of the house may be considered safe.

Independent living

In an age when elders are increasingly left to care for themselves, digi-tech should help, say its proponents. It allows elders the choice of living independently. They talk of the dearth of care-givers, want cities to develop senior-friendly, gadget-driven, smart homes. Technology saves time, makes care-giving logistically easier, lets care-recipients feel secure, increases their confidence, improves social-connectedness, and reduces stress. Technology helps families know that their loved ones are eating / sleeping well, taking their medications regularly, and are safe.

E-caring is the buzzword now. Melody Wilding, director of Outreach and Strategic Communications at eCaring, has talked of medical / assistive devices that include care-giving technologies, of Cloud-based care-giving tools (e-blood-glucose monitors) and health-managing systems that allow doctors to keep an account of real-time healthcare data such as medication intake, vital signs, daily routines, personal emergency response systems (PERS) and mental state, regardless of the user’s computer skills or healthcare literacy.

Some people point to the minuses of such a move: Can common-platform technology connecting families / hospitals / helpers be seamless? How expensive / effective are monitoring services? And what of privacy issues? How unobtrusive are they? Most important — will the doctors talk to patients face-to-face? Give them the much-needed assurance?

No substitute

Nitin, who uses a wheelchair, depends heavily on the Internet, “for information-surfing, news, mail, social-networking, shopping. I compare prices sitting at home, order (standardised) goods without having to visit shops or wait for the weekend”. His Internet time shifts to his smartphone, especially when he chats; his remote-controlled devices help him operate fans / lights; he has a call-button near his bed. But no technology can replace family members, he says.

“We understand the comfort points and needs of one another. My wife can see when my legs need straightening; I know when she needs a hand with the kids’ homework. My dad worries if I’m home late — it has nothing to do with my being paraplegic. I worry when my wife is gone too long to the market.” Yes, it’s a big comfort that everyone carries a cell phone, but having loving, caring family members around builds the emotional strength of “both me and them”. A healthier emotional state improves our attitude and physical health.

“No machine, no gadgets can be substitutes for human warmth and care,” asserts counsellor Mohana Narayanan. “You can have your heart hooked up to a machine, your kidneys to a dialysis, but your spirit needs the care of a human being — that look of love, care of a warm touch that says you matter to me. Gadgets help with caring, but aren’t substitutes for care-giving.”