THAW Event Summary: Can Technology Help Older People Lead a Healthier and Happier Life?

May 27th 2015 marked the first Technology for Healthy Ageing and Wellbeing (THAW) event bringing together the general public with those in the NHS, councils, charities and industry to discuss if technology could be used to help older people lead happier healthier lives.

The day started with Professor Arlene Astell giving a short presentation on the THAW network and its objectives.

Professor Arlene Astell presenting at THAW's first event 1 Professor Arlene Astell presenting at THAW's first event 2

Shortly after, the room was briefed on its first activity of the day: “Technology Interaction”. Attendees were asked to get into pairs and to choose an item of technology from their table. They were then given 10 minutes to learn how to use the item before giving feeding back to the table on how they found this and what they thought about the product (i.e. who would use it; its good and bad points and so forth). A spokesperson from each table was then nominated to give feedback to the audience.

Participants experimenting with a zoom rhythm track A participant experimenting with a pill dispenser A participant using a mood lamp Two participants experimenting with a video camera

Tables reported that some devices lacked readable print; featured confusing technical jargon; had no descriptive elements for easily identification and were not suitable for those with dexterity issues. Others, on the other hand, reported some items as being straight forward, logical and easy to use.

Participants giving feedback regarding the Zoom Rhythm Track Participants giving feedback regarding scales Participants giving feedback Participant giving feedback

One participant commented that at least one device from each table required another in order to work. For example, some would not function without Wi-Fi, broadband or a computer connected to them. Although these devices were simple and easy to use, there were still hidden complexities involved in order to get them to work correctly.

Another participant identified that they could use the Nexus 7 tablet on their table to identify other devices via Google search and then learn how to use them by watching YouTube tutorials. A nice example in my opinion of how we can use technology to acquire new skills.

Participants using the Nexus 7 to identify other devices on the table via Google Participants discuss the items on the table

One person raised the issue that no prices had been mentioned. They commented that many devices they had seen were expensive. I agreed with this comment as I felt people present at the event would have benefitted from us highlighting some cost effective alternatives.

Another commented how pill dispensers were complex and fiddly for service users but staff were not allowed to fill them as it was classed as ‘double dispensing’ or ‘potting up’. Some pharmacies offer filling dispensers as a service but they tend to be expensive. Since the event, I did some background reading on this: I have found that double dispensing is indeed illegal and clearly against NICE guidelines.

At this point, there was a lunch break; after which all three of the THAW students gave presentations on their projects.

Jacob Andrews presented a talk: “Can we use technology to detect the early signs of mental health difficulties in older adults?

Jacob Andrews presenting his talk: “Can we use technology to detect the early signs of mental health difficulties in older adults?”

David Clayton gave a presentation on: “Exploring the uses of technology by and for older people to overcome loneliness and social isolation Social Care Interventions and Self-help Strategies

David Clayton presenting his talk on: “Exploring the uses of technology by and for older people to overcome loneliness and social isolation Social Care Interventions and Self-help Strategies”

Matthew Bennion’s presentation topic was: “Can digital devices capable of reading emotion make the delivery of digital therapy more user-friendly and acceptable to older adults?

Matthew Bennion presenting his talk on: “Can digital devices capable of reading emotion make the delivery of digital therapy more user-friendly and acceptable to older adults?”

Once the talks had finished, the room was briefed on the second activity “Scavenger Hunt”. Multiple apps and technologies relating to the three THAW projects were placed around the room. Participants were asked to take a sheet and go to each activity station, filling in details relating to each experience as they moved around. Once completed, participants were instructed to head back to their seat and answer a further three questions at the end of the form.

The feedback from the activities was interesting:



This is a website that helps people to track their mood and receive support from other users when they are feeling down. MoodPanda received very mixed feedback from its use. Some participants did not like it due to its simplicity. Moreover, they believed that anyone over the age of 7 would struggle to find it stimulating to use. Others, however, thought it was excellent as it was easy to use and allowed for very quick interactions.

It was suggested that the site could cause someone to feel more isolated and lonely if they failed to receive many hugs or if responses to their expression of emotion were not quick enough. They also felt it potentially patronising/condescending for an adult audience but it could play a role in aiding under 7s. Another participant made a correlation between the hugs in MoodPanda and when someone does not receive many ‘likes’ for something posted on their Facebook wall.


Lexulous Tablet 1 Lexulous Tablet 2
This is an online word game that can be played alone, with friends, other players, individually or against the computer. It was felt that this game was very easy to use: it had good interactivity and was a good time passer. However, some were unsure if it could help people be healthier or happier.

Concerns were voiced that it could become highly addictive and that this type of game could result in people excluding themselves from other activities. It was suggested that preventative features to stop it from becoming addictive needed to be added. They went on to say that research carried out in Japan had shown that when a group of addicted online gamers were made to rest, sleep and eat, the quality of their gaming improved.

Mr Mood

Mr Mood with a happy face Mr Mood showing historic mood statistics

Mr Mood is an application that allows users to track their mood over time.

There was, again, a rather mixed response. Many felt it was easy to use, while others suggested the swipe action to register emotions was too easy to do by accident. Others felt the app would have profited from clearer instructions. One person suggested it may be of benefit to a psychotherapist or to someone who was unable to express themselves emotionally very well.

Others questioned what benefit it had over a paper based mood diary. They thought the automatic generation of statistics over many weeks/months could be quite useful. The mood measure, however, did not cater to the full range of emotions experienced on a day to day basis. It would be more interesting to see a more complex system with a fuller range of moods represented on Mr Mood.

Social Networks for older adults
This section was comprised of social networks tailored to older adults including: Senior Chatters, Elefriends, Buzz50, Silver Surfers, and Giving & Getting.

One person felt that Buzz50 had design issues: the text was too small; the screen was really busy; pop ups seemed to appear everywhere along with adverts. However, they really liked Silver Surfers as it was very clear, easy to navigate and with no items flashing up.

Another requested if the list could be sent to those on the contact list as it was really useful and could be distributed to members of their organisation. They noted that Giving & Getting was very good and easy to use.


Participants discussing the Mantarobot Two participants experiment with talking to someone via a Mantarobot

These telepresence robots allow remote users to connect to audio/video conferences. They also have the ability to drive the robot to various locations and look up/down, left/right to interact with other people and the environment in which the robot is located.

It was suggested that when the technology works it works well but there are many components involved which could potentially fail. Another issue relates to the robots’ potential applications in this environment.

Another questioned why someone would want such a device. Particularly for the elderly: imagine this suddenly appearing if someone had memory issues or why would they want it there in the first place.

It was noted that this type of robot would be very useful for those with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) or those with cerebral palsy who cannot get out of doors. It gives them a digital presence within communities that they do not have access too, allowing them to engage with the community irrespective of their physical conditions.

Movability was highlighted as a key issue as getting robots to move around can be particularly problematic. For example, they can get knocked over easily; they do not always respond as instructed, and moving them on uneven, gradient surfaces can also be difficult.

Another commenter said two things in the day had troubled them: specifically, the project on the use of an avatar and then this robot. They were concerned about where technology was headed. They had seen a video released by the University of Kent regarding avatar interactions. In their view, such developments seemed dreadful and lonely: they could not imagine things if they ever ended up that way. It was an interesting point and one my project in particularly will have to explore in order to reassure people about the nature of my work.

On closing, someone made a very pertinent comment regarding the need to find something to bridge the gap for those who have not grown up on technology. This may be considered a key issue which needs to be addressed in this type of niche market.

All in all the event was a huge success and received lots of positive feedback, if you’d like to be involved in future THAW events please feel free to drop me a line.

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