Making AgeTech more available in Canada’s northern and rural communities

CTAAN’s Director Dr. Richard McAloney and Academic Director Dr. Shannon Freeman with long-time Prince George resident, Donna McAloney (centre).

Aging in northern and rural communities often brings challenges for older adults and caregivers, from the need to travel vast distances for health services to limited connectivity and access to technologies available to those in more urban settings.

The Centre for Technology Adoption for Aging in the North (CTAAN), AGE-WELL’s newest national innovation hub, is working to break down barriers to the adoption of technologies that can help older residents of northern and rural communities to age happily and healthily.

Launched in 2020 as a partnership between the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), Northern Health and AGE-WELL, CTAAN promotes collaboration through multi-sectoral partnerships that test AgeTech products in real-world settings, with a goal to make them more available to older adults, caregivers and health-care systems.

“People living and aging in northern and rural communities have the right to the same supports and services as those in more urban environments,” says Dr. Shannon Freeman, Academic Director of CTAAN, which is based in Prince George, B.C. “Everyone should be able to access the right technology in the right place at the right time that works to meet their needs.”

As a social gerontologist, associate professor of nursing at UNBC and long-time resident of Prince George, much of Dr. Freeman’s work focuses on promoting health and wellbeing for older residents in northern and rural communities.

She says the number of older adults living in these areas, especially among the 75-plus population, is projected to grow, as is “the demand and the need for services and products to help them do so in a way that supports their quality of life.” For example, out of B.C.’s population of five million people, some 300,000 live in the top two-thirds of the province, about 40,000 of them older adults. More than 35 per cent of the First Nations population in B.C. lives in communities located in northern B.C.

When she met Dr. Richard McAloney, an expert in commercialization, entrepreneurship and translation, at the AGE-WELL Summer Institute in New Brunswick in 2018, the two spoke about the importance of ensuring that AgeTech products reach people in remote areas. Dr. McAloney, who grew up in Prince George and was running a startup incubator in Toronto, and Dr. Freeman continued the conversation and set about creating CTAAN, prompting Dr. McAloney to move back home to become its director.

Helping companies test and implement tech

Trying out an exergame in CTAAN’s demonstration facility. The 2RaceWithMe game is designed to promote physical and cognitive health.

“We’re really expanding efforts to get tech out to where it’s needed,” says Dr. McAloney. He notes that the hub works closely with partners to set priorities, identify needs and match them with technologies that can be tested and validated through projects in the region.

CTAAN collaborates with tech developers, older adults, caregivers, health-care providers, and companies like Best Buy Health and Rakuten Kobo. It also has support from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), which helps small- and medium-sized enterprises validate their products in test sites.

At one site, CTAAN is working with a broad group of stakeholders to install AgeTech systems at a new dementia care home in Vanderhoof, B.C. The team is evaluating the benefits for residents, caregivers and staff of technologies such as a “serious game,” developed by Centivizer, that is designed to engage older adults in physical and cognitive exercise, and Nano-Lit, lighting that imitates sunlight to ease people into and out of their daytime routine, reducing sundowning and improving sleep habits.

Such technologies will also be part of a new Community For Aging being developed in Kitimat, B.C. Starting with funding from Rio Tinto, the project is about “getting on the ground in the community” so that people can be informed, aware, engaged and thinking about technology that supports aging, Dr. McAloney says. The goal is to test and implement AgeTech products in places where they are needed and to “spark local innovation and product development down the road,” he explains.

Through community-level engagement, CTAAN aims to increase access and leverage technology to support aging in northern and rural areas. To help with increasing awareness, acceptance and use of technology that supports aging more broadly across the region, funding from the Vancouver Foundation’s Systems Change Grant Program is supporting the process.

A ‘living lab’

Technology makes it possible for Wilma Hartnagel to live independently.

CTAAN also helps companies promote their products and services to northern and rural communities. Its demonstration facility at UNBC is designed to showcase new and existing technologies that support healthy aging, like smart technologies created by Vancouver-based TochTech for applications such as promoting stove safety and monitoring the overnight safety of older adults.

Wilma Hartnagel, 84, a retired schoolteacher who lives independently in Prince George, says the challenges of living in the north include extremely cold winters, which bring hazards such as difficult conditions for walking. When she slipped on the ice and broke her ankle two years ago, she was grateful to have a smart home security system that allowed her to remain on the third floor of her duplex and use her cellphone to look at and admit people who came to the door.

“I couldn’t manage to live alone without it,” says Hartnagel, who acts as an advocate for CTAAN and is excited to see the hub raising awareness of the need to bring technologies for aging to isolated areas. “CTAAN is doing important work to make life better, especially in remote areas and places in the north.”

Dr. Freeman says CTAAN brings diverse voices and multiple perspectives to the table. The hub presents “an enormous opportunity” to show that older adults in northern and rural communities are willing to embrace new technologies, she says. “We try to be the bridge and the connector to help make technologies more accessible and adapted to Canada’s northern geography and highly distributed populations.”

eReaders for long-term care 

PhD student Aderonke Agboji is leading a study to see if eReaders can mitigate apathy and help long-term care residents become more socially engaged.

One project, just getting underway, involves the use of eReaders to address apathy among older adults living in long-term care homes. Aderonke Agboji, a PhD student in the School of Health Sciences at UNBC who has a nursing background and lives in Quesnel, B.C, is conducting the research with funding from CTAAN and support from Kobo. The study involves setting up ebook clubs at four long-term care homes across the region to see if the devices help participants become more socially engaged.

Agboji, a specialist in dementia care who served on AGE-WELL’s Highly Qualified Personnel Advisory Committee in 2021-2022, says the project will explore the “huge role” that technology can play in the wellbeing of older people living in different settings. She notes that CTAAN has played a crucial role in putting this on the radar, and she hopes the hub will help to “give older adults in the north equal rights to technology as people in urban centers.”

By building technology capacity and streamlining the process for its adoption in the north, CTAAN is working to do exactly that.

Photos by Jeff Vinnick