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Can smart tech create smart homes for older people?

The phrase ‘smart homes’ may bring to mind images from science fiction, and thoughts of robots vacuuming and cooking for their human masters, but the reality is far simpler and within reach – and it could save the NHS and social care services millions of pounds per year.

Smart home technology is, in fact, already being used (the Amazon Echo, for example) and will only keep on growing in popularity. But its use and the types of technologies need to be assessed and accelerated in order to address a crucial and often-overlooked issue: care for the elderly.

A report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, ‘Healthy Homes: Accommodating an Ageing Population’, explores how home technology can benefit older people and allow them to stay healthy and independent, remaining in their homes for longer and therefore taking pressure off care services.

As ambitious as that may sound, it doesn’t have to mean creating incredible devices or building brand new homes fitted out with connected (and expensive) technology. As the Healthy Homes report highlights, retrofitting or adding “simple technological adaptions” (which could include something as basic as fitting handrails or changing the location of appliances to make them more accessible) can vastly benefit occupants and help drive a market for devices designed to assist older people.

Crucially, the aim of smart homes from this perspective is not to create an environment that does everything for an older person. Exercise, both physical and cognitive, is key to remaining healthy as we age. The report points out that “The objective is to encourage physical activities while performing routine tasks, by maximising [the occupant’s] activity in-line with their health ability.”

This could include a chair that assists an older person in standing, but still requires them to expend some effort in the process. Stepping it up a notch, those sci-fi devices are out there if you do want them, as Dr Helen Meese – Head of Healthcare at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and author of the Healthy Homes report – explained to e-Access Bulletin.

“One technology I like is the ‘fall prediction’ carpet, which can not only raise the alarm if you do fall, but through sensors built into the fibre weave, it can analyse your gait and predict if you are going to have a fall before it happens. This kind of technology could have a significant impact on hospital admissions and save the NHS millions.”

While smart carpets for every home may be a way off, smart home tech is already very much underway. Over 433 million smart home devices were shipped in 2017 and market research firm IDC predicts that 940 million devices will be shipped by 2022. Meese points to figures from research firm Gartner, predicting that by 2020, the average home will have more than 500 connected devices. While this doesn’t focus exclusively on technology that benefits older people, it shows that things are moving fast.

But if it’s clear that home technology can help older people, why isn’t it being used more widely? Joe Oldman, Consumer and Community Policy Advisor at Age UK, flags up a number of barriers, including lack of awareness of both the technology available technology and its benefits, both in older people and health professionals advising them. Oldman also points out that lack of internet access, particularly in rural areas with poor or non-existent Wi-Fi, will have an impact here.

Rachael Docking, Senior Evidence Manager at independent charitable foundation the Centre for Ageing Better, also cites lack of awareness as a barrier to adoption of smart home technology. “Many people in later life do not self-identify as needing to adapt their home or make other changes to help them as they enter later life. Those technologies and smart home solutions which are available are not necessarily driven by what older people themselves want or perceive as needed in their home.”

This is the root of a much larger problem in terms of assistive equipment for elderly people, as Docking explains: “There is a lack of understanding of who products are being designed for and the wants/needs of that market. It should be less about making new products and more about looking at how current products are marketed. There is no visibility of home aids and adaptations in the mainstream retail market.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these problems and related issues are unearthed in the Healthy Homes report, as Helen Meese confirms when discussing some of its key findings: “All too often, technology aimed at older people emphasises their growing frailty and decline, and is regularly aimed at healthcare providers rather than actual users, rendering the product overly clinical and unappealing.”

So, what can be done to change the current situation? With such a range of factors at play and so many different parties involved (older people, technology manufacturers, retailers, government, housing associations, home builders), the solutions are varied and often long-term in scope.

However, it’s not difficult to see key themes emerge in these solutions. Raising awareness for everyone involved can only help the situation and lead to a deeper understanding of the benefits of home technology and what this technology needs to achieve.

And when it comes to raising awareness in end-users, this may not be as difficult as some might assume. “I think the assumption that older people don’t like technology is a misnomer,” says Meese, pointing to information in the Healthy Homes report: “Today’s over 65s are relatively well-informed about technology and often want to be engaged in decisions and processes regarding their health and care.”

Looking to the future, organisations that design and build homes will have an increasingly important role to play in creating effective smart homes. “Home builders need to think about the incorporation of age-friendly design into new homes that make the application of assistive tech easier,” says Joe Oldman. “The development of smart homes needs to be linked to improvements in building regulations to make homes more accessible and healthier. For example, improved design features to help people avoid trip and falls.”

Those involved with the design and manufacture of technology and assistive devices will quickly find themselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Speaking about the report’s recommendations, Meese explains that suppliers and manufacturers must prepare for increasing customer demand for devices that assist older people, or else “face losing out to more responsive, age-friendly businesses.”

As Meese puts it: “Manufacturers should be mindful of designing products ‘for all’ which offer self-improvement, stimulation and enhance lifestyle, not focusing on limited specialist use. Creating discreet devices and equipment that can either be worn or built into clothing – or hidden in home furniture and appliances and put away when not in use – must be a priority. The report highlights that incorporating simple technological adaptions could not only change the way we live, but create economies of scale for age-friendly devices.”

Rachael Docking also stresses the need for improved retailing and marketing: “We are currently completely missing the wider consumer market/universal design market and practical innovations that can support people to remain at home. We need to focus on how we stimulate design in aids and adaptations, and work with retailers to take those products to market. Until the products are right, people will not want them in their home.”

As all the experts we spoke to pointed out, however, the importance of utilising, fixing or updating existing devices already in homes cannot be underestimated. “There is a danger of being dazzled by new technology and forgetting the basic housing features that make a home comfortable, safe and accessible for older people,” says Joe Oldman.

Perhaps, then, the message is that until the day when those super-smart robots can take care of all our smart home needs and provide that perfect level of care for older people, it might be best to put aside the sci-fi dreams aside for a while and concentrate on what technology and care options are just around the corner – and what’s already out there. Ignoring this simply isn’t an option anymore for anyone, regardless of age or ability.

Find out more and read ‘Healthy Homes: Accommodating an Ageing Population’ in full (PDF only).


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