The era of IoT is already upon us, with the rise of smart gadgets, and even smart homes, streamlining more and more aspects of the way we live. As the internet and the physical world begin to merge, the landscape of how we will be living in the coming years takes on a whole new form.
Following on from my very popular recent post, A Smart House: Do We Really Need One?, I thought it would be a good idea to explore how the changes brought on by the growth of IoT are set to create a wealth of ways for us to care for one another on a global level.
An Ageing Population
One of the major concerns that humanity is currently facing is the rapidly ageing population of the world. Whilst 100 years ago, the average lifespan was around 50 years, it’s now 71, and increasing. At this point in time, almost one in ten people are over the age of sixty. By 2050, it is expected that this number will rise to one in five: at this point, the over sixties will outnumber children. Whilst the most significant rise will be in less developed regions of the world, there is also a steady rise to be seen in developed countries.
The ageing population raises pertinent questions regarding how we will manage care for our elderly. With more elderly people comes more age-related illness, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. The problem is compounded by a growing void in carers for these individuals. So, could smart homes be the answer?
There is already a large body of new technology being implemented to attempt to solve the problem. The developments on the way will help to relieve the burden on caregivers, whilst allowing people to remain in their own homes for longer, maintaining as much valuable independence and autonomy as possible.
So what sorts of technology are we likely to see for the elder care market?
Smart homes technology is set to be central to the process, with assistance and detection devices working alongside intelligent appliances, sensors, and reminder services.
A smart medical home, for example, could be equipped with bio- and infrared sensors to gather data which can be augmented against physician data to give a rounded view of patient health and wellbeing. Such in-depth reports gained through careful monitoring will improve how family, carers and medical practitioners are able to treat the patient at each stage of the illness, being able to detect incremental decline earlier than ever. So what would such smart home sensors look like?
A smart bed, equipped with sensors to detect pulse, movement, respiration and presence, will be a hugely beneficial weapon in the elderly care arsenal.
Monitoring the physiological aspects of the patient’s sleep will feed all-important quantitative data back to physicians. A state of absence or significant alterations in activity level can alert carers and, possibly, emergency personnel, to potential emergency situations. For example, if a patient is detected to have left their bed and not returned for some time, this could indicate an accident or other incident requiring human intervention.
Alex Mihailidis, of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, has been developing a number of CATs (cognitive assistive technologies). Amongst these is a ceiling sensor, about the size of the average domestic smoke detector, which can detect when a patient has fallen.
Falls are one of the greatest hazards for seniors, and rank highly on numerous survey results of biggest fears amongst this group. Thus, Mihailidis’s ceiling sensor could offer real peace of mind, as well as vital assistance in lowering mortality rates from falls.
The unit is designed to avoid error by establishing a verbal dialogue between the patient and the system, in order to ascertain whether a fall has occurred, before issuing a response call via wireless communication with a central control unit. Advanced sensing and computer vision also help the unit to identify the posture of the patient, and thus assess what is a fall and what isn’t.
The current norm is the use of wearable devices featuring push buttons to be pressed in the event of a fall. These are common practice in retirement homes, as well as in some private dwellings. However, this method often fails, either because of the severity of injury sustained in the fall, the level of cognitive impairment of the patient, or even the patient worrying about being a bother.
The same technology behind the fall detector could perform wider functions. Being able to monitor activity levels in a patient and to record any anomalies in physical behaviours, whilst other useful functions could include remote lighting controls and temperature monitoring.
Having the technology to light particular rooms as the patient moves between them will further cut fall risk, as well as the risk of other injury or accidents in the dark.
Similarly, temperature monitoring and control could prevent thousands of deaths, ensuring that patients keep their homes at a healthy temperature all year round.
“We are particularly interested in Smart Technology for our retirement schemes to look after the wellbeing of residents. It is now possible for sensors to track movement and this can provide safeguards in a number of ways. It means that next of kin or scheme managers can be made aware if there has been no activity.” – Tony Dowse of Environ Communities Ltd
Ultrasonic motion detectors could also be used to open and close doors, gates, cupboards and home appliances (such as the refrigerator) and so on, which can pose a variety of risks to cognitively impaired patients.
Smart Kitchens and Smart Shopping
In the kitchen, smart microwaves will be able to use radio frequencies to determine what a patient would like to eat. It will play videos to help the patient to open the food packaging, and – of course – cook it for the appropriate length of time.
Amazon’s Dash button, which debuted in early form 2015, is a relatively small scale tech advance that could have big implications as part of smart homes for the elderly, as much as for the rest of the population. Simply pressing the button when more toilet paper, washing powder or teabags need to be ordered, could be a godsend for those with limited mobility. Operated by wifi signal, an alert goes straight to Amazon to deliver what you need as it’s requested.
If you’re worried that your ageing relative could press their Dash buttons too much and end up ordering a mountain of canned soup, the button is set to only order one of the item when it’s pressed. You can also monitor the buttons’ use via a smartphone app, receiving an alert whenever a button is pressed. There’s a thirty minute window for cancelling orders.
The small button Amazon has launched is just the beginning: washing machines and water filter jugs, for example, could eventually be set to automatically order refills, in the same way that you can currently click a button to get your printer to re-order ink cartridges for you.
Hob, Oven, Gas and Water Safety
Forgetting to turn off the hob or oven poses a real danger to vulnerable individuals in their own home. It’s also an ongoing worry for friends and family members. There’s not only the risk of fire, but also that of injury from accidental contact. Smart hobs and oven safety controls can be used to control heat levels and to cut off power when a certain temperature is reached, or after a certain substantial amount of time has passed. Gas and water leaks can be prevented easily with sensors, all of which amount to a generally safer environment, and improved peace of mind for all parties.
The most controversial of smart home technology for the elderly, video monitoring is also the simplest way to see exactly how a patient is faring. However, whilst studies have found seniors to be generally receptive and positive in their perceptions of smart home technologies, video monitoring is, it seems, a step too far.
Understandably, there are real concerns over how this technology would be used. Video monitoring presents a massive threat to privacy, whilst many seniors have expressed mistrust over those monitoring the footage.
Perception and Concerns
You might imagine that older individuals would be reluctant to embrace such high tech gizmos in their home. Surprisingly, however, research demonstrates a generally positive attitude to smart homes for elderly care, which implies that adoption of smart home technology in this sector may be well received. That’s not to say that there weren’t significant worries over the use of monitoring though.
As mentioned above, nonetheless, video monitoring got a big thumbs-down from survey participants. The threat of invasion of privacy is a very real one where video surveillance is concerned, and we’ve seen this negative reaction many times over the last few decades as CCTV surveillance has grown in the outside world. Apply this fear to our private space, and we balk.
Despite a generally positive response regarding technology for smart homes, researchers did note a lot of voices of dissent. Beyond video monitoring, many saw sleep monitoring and activity monitoring as being just as invasive, though – unlike video monitoring – there is a sense that this perception can be changed over time. It’s hard to imagine a time when people would be happy to be monitored by cameras, under any circumstance, even where it is ‘for their own protection’.
Even as we look beyond the elderly and vulnerable, we are likely to see some resistance to smart homes technology from other demographics, too. Surveillance concerns are not to be sniffed at, especially in light of certain reports to date.
In 2013, a British man found that his smart TV was sending data back to LG about not just what channels and programs were being viewed, but also what data was on any USB sticks inserted into the TV. This data was being sent regardless of whether the ‘Collection of Watching Info’ setting was on or off.
With such reports comes the risk that George Orwell’s 1984 could be starting to look less like a dystopian novel, and more like an instruction manuel for a dubious future. Could we see smart heating systems in rented accommodation being manipulated by landlords? And is there a risk of cyberterrorists hacking into elderly people’s homes and shutting off the heating in mid-winter?
The relentless technological advancement we are seeing is much more of a continuum than a singular event, and as such, the smart homes journey will be fraught with pitfalls that will need to be addressed by manufacturers, consumers, and in Parliament every step of the way.
If the advent of smart homes is to be widely accepted by an ageing population who could benefit from the technology, issues of privacy, cybersecurity and of democracy itself all need to be thoroughly explored and resolved.
Smart Homes: The Conclusion
We may all be set to live longer, and our health be better due to medical advances, but the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia is still rising. Alzheimer’s Disease International warns that by 2050 the amount of people living with dementia will have risen from 44 million (today) to 135 million.
Such scary statistics make it clearer than ever that suitable strategies need to be in place to handle aspects of cognitive decline in older age as a matter of priority.
Assuming that the needs and rights of the individual are placed foremost, there is no reason to doubt that smart home technology could prove a revolutionary step in optimising how we live. And particularly when it comes to caring for our most vulnerable citizens, this step cannot come soon enough.