Dr David Usher of ergonomics and human factors consultancy InterAction of Bath, discusses the challenge of an ageing population and the role of ergonomics in bringing down the cost of elderly care.
The ageing population is one of the most severe challenges we face, and nowhere will it prove more difficult than in the public sector, which is already so hard-pressed.
The statistics lay out the size of the challenge. Within the next 15 years, 24 countries including the UK will become ‘super-aged’, with more than 21% of the population aged 65 or over. As well as ensuring that all public buildings are agedready, there will be the need to adapt IT systems and interfaces to allow continued comfortable use as we all age. But perhaps the biggest and most obvious challenge can be found in the care of the elderly — an already troubled sector, which is struggling against funding issues.
With an ever-growing elderly population, many of whom will need care, it is imperative that care providers — both public and private sector — identify ways to make their operations and environments more efficient. The key to this is the more efficient design of environments, equipment and processes to deliver, where possible, more independent living and thereby ease the strain on care workers.
A lot of work has already been done on environments, equipment and processes by physiotherapists, occupational therapists, nurses and other care professionals. However, while they may not realise it, what they have been doing are piecemeal exercises in ergonomics driven by necessity. But while a lot of good work has been done, the results of these efforts are not being collated and shared, and this is at a detriment to the sector as a whole.
Ergonomics is a degree-level profession with a structure and a chartered institute, but currently ergonomists are not involved in significant numbers in the elderly care sector. Much of the work done to date has been invaluable, but it has not been done by qualified ergonomists.
To give this process maximum value, and truly to benefit the sector, it is crucial to bring to bear the overarching perspectives and skills of professional ergonomics; the understanding of the capabilities of the elderly, their preferences, their inheritances, their cognitive abilities and their physical measurements.
A unified theme, developed and delivered by professional ergonomists will strengthen and reinforce this essential process. Ergonomists have the skills, experience and state-of-the-art equipment, such as 3D scanners, that will help ensure that the design of equipment, processes and environments is suitable for the growing challenge.
Sharing best practice
Professional ergonomics is already widely used in defence, automotive industries, process control industries and in many other sectors, yet is noticeably absent in the care industry. The tactics of care professionals have been developed largely through trial and error, and while much of it has worked admirably, the knowledge gained has not been collated and shared. Ideas that have worked for particular individuals and situations have gone no further.
There is also the issue of formal frameworks, best practice and legislation that will need to be updated for the emerging challenge of a larger elderly population. Establishing these is key to a successful and cost-efficient future.
In the world of ergonomics, if we have a client and we solve a problem, which is generalisable, we publish and share that information. It becomes part of the knowledge base on which the ergonomics community is based and it benefits the target industry as a whole. So it is time local authorities and the elderly care industry recognised the advantages of bringing professional ergonomists into the sector, sharing knowledge of what does and does not work. It is the only way to guarantee a less stressful future for the industry and for the elderly people themselves.