Potentia: Thinking differently about aging well at home

With Potentia, a winning project of the 2022 cohort of the Civic Incubator of the Maison de l’innovation sociale, Amélie Paquette and Sarah Libersan aim to give seniors the tools they need to make informed decisions, consistent with their autonomy and well-being, about how and where to live.

The impact of an aging population

The Institut de la statistique du Québec projects that one quarter of Quebecers will be 65 years of age or older in 2031. In 2017, this group constituted 19% of the population, and in 1986, only 10%! This is a major demographic change that brings with it many challenges, particularly in the areas of health and housing services.

Illustration of Bilan démographique du Québec – 2021 edition

The solutions adopted so far—including curative rather than preventive approaches, as well as forced accommodation in residences due to lack of alternatives—are costly and known to have a deleterious effect on the quality of life of the elderly. Many aging people wish to remain in their own homes for as long as possible, but the lack of home-support services means that they are often forced to move into private residences or specialized institutions.

Given the pressures of aging on both the costs of the healthcare system and the well-being of seniors, innovative solutions must be considered to address this societal issue.

Addressing the realities of aging

Living conditions in some residential and long-term care centers (CHSLDs) are regularly decried in the news. They made headlines during the first months of the COVID-19 health crisis in particular.

This issue caught Amélie Paquette‘s attention as she embarked on an entrepreneurial project while pursuing her MBA:

“Housing and the elderly is a subject that is still not talked about enough. But in light of the pandemic and the many deaths in CHSLDs, the question must be asked: What will it take for seniors to be able to choose to grow old at home, and who can help them?

Interviews we’ve carried out ourselves and surveys regularly conducted by associations of retired people demonstrate that most elderly people want to grow old in their own homes. It’s a need they’ve clearly expressed.”

As she worked on this project, Amélie was invited to participate in the Habitats forum, an event organized by Un et un font mille which addresses the realities of aging through social transformation projects. As moderator of an evening session called Homes Without Walls, Amélie brought together individuals of different ages, including seniors, in a roundtable discussion about their needs and aspirations for better aging at home. The richness of the conversations inspired Amélie to create a working group with the panelists, all of whom were enthusiastic about taking central roles in solving a problem that directly concerns them, following the forum.

Participants in the working group shared a variety of experiences related to the decision, be it mature or painful, to move to a new living environment. The transition, for some—those with financial resources and attentive caregivers—can be calm and easy. But those with more modest incomes or fewer family members and friends often faced a dilemma. Was it better, they asked, to uproot oneself from one’s community to live in a private residence or specialized institution, thereby ensuring access to essential services? Or was it better to remain in one’s neighbourhood, without assurance of support, at the risk of aging in poorly adapted housing?

How can we help seniors who are faced with this dilemma? A series of consultations following the forum identified a variety of elements required for aging well. These include functional needs such as healthcare, groceries, and home maintenance. In many cases, community or government services already exist to address these needs—but they are little known, difficult to access, and unevenly distributed throughout Quebec. The list of needs does not end there. Like anyone else, seniors want to do things, feel useful, and maintain their social life and their sense of belonging to their community.

“Being among one hundred elderly people has highlighted for me everything they’re mourning, to varying degrees—from leaving the workforce to losing their driver’s license, their mobility, a loved one, their vision, their hearing, their autonomy, their credibility, their sense of purpose… Vulnerability is a recurrent theme in aging, and we can empower seniors by giving them a digital tool for self-diagnosis of their needs, integrated with an intelligent system that automatically generates a personalized service plan. Potentia will make the daily lives of seniors easier, and it will encourage their personal growth by mobilizing existing services and creating links to the community.” — Amélie

Potentia's evolution in the Civic Incubator's journey

In a collaborative design process, this intergenerational working group (participants’ ages range from 27 to 71) developed a prototype solution by mobilizing complementary skills and expertise. Sarah Libersan describes the importance of the Civic Incubator’s support: “We were having trouble breaking through dead ends in the co-creation work and developing the solution we had imagined.”

During the Winter 2022 cohort, the Potentia project took the form of a program to support aging well at home. Given that existing services are disparate and not well known, the team imagined a solution to connect community-minded people of all ages with the seniors targeted by the project. This facilitates the sharing of assistance proposals, advice, and additional resources. How do we bring about these intergenerational encounters? The team is developing a series of accessible public workshops that welcome people of all ages to learn about digital resources that can guide seniors in using the tools on-site.

Amélie and Sarah explain: “At this stage, we were aware of the obstacles to the deployment of the project. For example, they could be logistical—related to access to premises and the necessary digital equipment. Our concerns also focused on human resources: How could we mobilize volunteers beyond the prototype phase? We expected when we joined the Civic Incubator that we would be supported in these objectives, but ultimately we were challenged on many more aspects of the project!”

The impact Potentia sought was refined by zeroing in on the question of its initial mission: aging well at home. After all, what is “home”? Couldn’t we also feel at home in a residence or in a new, better adapted home? What if the solution to aging well was to make the right choice, at the right time, by being informed about all of the possibilities available to seniors— according to their needs and desires—in terms of housing, home assistance, health services, mobility support, and leisure activities? Each person’s journey is unique, and the more options there are to thrive in old age, the more seniors will be able to make their own decisions in keeping with their changing lifestyles and needs.

The active search for blind spots revealed diverse paths. While the older members of the working group, by mobilizing their own experiences, bring a perspective that is certainly relevant, they are still very active, fully autonomous, and thus probably not entirely representative of the solution’s target clientele. Aging has many faces and Potentia wants to reflect the realities of as many people as possible.

The team also realizes that the support program they originally envisioned will require volunteer resources to be mobilized on a large scale to meet the target clientele, and that small public group workshops will not have the expected impact for a long time. Hence the reimagining of Potentia as a digital platform rather than an organization creating events to connect people in public spaces.

“The Civic Incubator’s support has taken us from the idea of cataloguing what exists to the creation of a fully personalized pathway to aging well. Multiple parameters come into play when it comes to choosing one’s living environment and we want our tool to reflect them. While keeping in mind the issue of access to digital resources, we seek to put in place a complete system that guides the user in their decision-making by proposing the most appropriate solutions—sometimes apparent, sometimes not—such as co-location between seniors, for example. Having shed light on the grey areas, we are now working with confidence on the platform’s user path. The Civic Incubator has been a real game changer not only for our project, but also for us as project leaders.” — Amélie

Potentia is currently seeking partners in the fields of both artificial intelligence and the user experience, as well as funding. If you would like to get involved in the project, please contact Amélie.

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