As part of our future of ageing in-depth inquiry, our Research Officer Molly Gray and the Chair of the inquiry, Professor Bella Starling, were given the opportunity to host a focus group at the West Bromwich African Caribbean Resource Centre an independent registered charity to hear from its members. Find out what they learnt below:

Back in March, I was lucky enough to spend the day at the West Bromwich African Caribbean Resource Centre. After a lively exercise class and fiery Caribbean curry, we hosted a focus group, expertly facilitated by Bella, with members of the resource centre. The session focussed on exploring their views on how health and well-being technologies might, or might not, support them to live well in older age.

All of the people who took part were aged 75 years and older, lived in the local West Bromwich area, and were of African Caribbean origin. Using photographs as prompts, participants discussed health and wellbeing technologies that are intended to help older adults in later life. These included assistive technologies such as robots, personal alarms, and healthcare watches; as well as research into new treatments which could affect staying healthier for longer – for example by delaying or preventing many common illnesses associated with older age. The photographs led to a rich discussion where participants shared their personal stories on how they interact with technology, and their hopes, fears, and expectations for the future of healthy ageing. Here are some of the key themes that emerged:

  • Focusing on social connections, exercise, access to transport and good quality housing in older age. The group valued independence, strong social relationships and fundamental living requirements, for example, warm housing as important attributes to ageing well. Throughout their discussion, there was less value placed on having new technology in the home to contribute to healthy ageing but rather a greater emphasis on community and fundamental needs being met.
  • Mixed opinions about robots. There was agreement in the group that robotic technology may be beneficial in providing functional support to older adults at home such as mowing the lawn or helping with cleaning, especially for older adults with physical impairments. However, the majority of people expressed concern that robots do not convey the same level of emotional intelligence as human beings. Discussions demonstrated that some people had particular fears around a potential lack of human contact if robots were to be used to provide personal care for older people.
  • Trust is an important consideration. Some of the group felt a lack of trust in technology, public bodies and commercial companies, especially when considering how their personal data might be used and stored. They also described a lack of trust in research that has involved BAME communities, due to previous experiences and known areas of inequality among Black Caribbean communities. Connecting with community leaders and centres was described by many participants as a helpful method of building trust in using new technologies.
  • A general feeling of fear when using technology. Worries about the usability of technology were often described among the group, for example, “what would happen if X technology breaks?”. It was noted that seeking assistance to solve technical issues with technology is often through electronic chatbots or automated phone calls. The group recognised that whilst human beings can also make mistakes, it was important to them to be able to discuss any issues in person.
  • Scepticism over the incentives behind the development of new treatments which target ageing. The motivation behind developing new drugs for healthy ageing was discussed. It was felt that some internal factors were key drivers, rather than pursuit of the best outcomes for older adults - the profit and competition motives of pharmaceutical companies were particularly highlighted. It was recognised that in some circumstances, there are benefits to developing new drugs which target the biology of ageing such as feeling healthier for longer in later life. However, fears were expressed that new medicines could be used for the wrong purposes. One person described a worry that potential new treatments being researched could result in healthcare providers focusing on medicines to solve physical health conditions and a reduced focus on mental health support. There was a discussion about the funding for new therapeutics and research, and concerns were raised that often research funding comes from driving a strict research agenda rather than following the needs of older adults which might be more beneficial.
  • Affordability of technology is a key barrier to accessing technology. People felt that new technology is often too expensive and should be accessible and available to everyone as they come into wider use. Many of the group shared their own personal experiences of having limited access to the internet and IT systems because of cost pressures.
  • A strong feeling that the development of new technology is inevitable: The group reflected on how the development of technology will likely increase in the future and many contributors felt that wider society should not hinder this process. However, regulation and appropriate testing of future technologies to ensure the technology meets certain standards were highlighted during this discussion as being an important consideration when developing new technologies for older adults.

The workshop ended with a question:

“If you had £10 million, what areas should be prioritised for investment in healthy ageing?”

Many factors were explored here such as exercise programmes, access to healthy nutrition, social community spaces and better transport links. Interestingly, few people felt additional funding should be spent on developing new technologies, but rather most talked about the need to direct large amounts of money for the “greater good” and “to those who need it more”, referring both to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and developing nations. It was generally felt that that funding and research efforts should be primarily concerned with addressing inequalities of health and well-being in older age, and technology should be developed and implemented in ways that try to reduce inequalities and support healthy ageing for all.

So what’s next?

This workshop forms part of a series of engagement workshops that have taken place throughout our inquiry which aimed to connect with older people to explore their perspectives on the role of future technology and science in their lives. We enormously appreciated the opportunity to engage with African and Caribbean older adults in West Bromwich, and participants’ narratives will inform our report and subsequent recommendations and findings. We aim to return to the West Bromwich African Caribbean Resource Centre later this year to share the findings of our inquiry; I hope over another plate of delicious curry!

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