IoT and the elderly

August 1, 2015 OpenSystems Media

4Are those least familiar with technology those that can benefit the most?

As with any new technology solution, one naturally first ponders, "How can this benefit me and my life?" The reality is often that those most outside of the technological loop, thus never pondering this for themselves, can be the group that most benefit – in the case of the Internet of Things (IoT), perhaps it's the elderly. In the UK alone the latest census tallies more than 10 million people over the age of 65; this number is predicted to rise by 50 percent in the next two decades, and globally it's a similar story.

The medicinal and health technology improvements we're currently overseeing increase life-expectancy, thus in themselves bear responsibility for these census figures. Recent studies also show that, on average, parents and children tend have greater distances between them geographically than ever before – translating naturally to fewer visits of elderly parents to ensure their wellbeing. Local health authorities try desperately to bridge that gap with home care services, though with budgets bursting at the seams more than ever before, acceptable levels of care can only be stretched so far when numbers are rising and budgets are falling.

One could argue the medical advances we've seen owe gratitude to the significant contribution our own embedded computing industry has had. I believe we are the very same industry that can provide the solution to how we maintain those standards of care in the future when traditional methods edge toward untenable.

With the similar advancements in motion detection technology within cameras, one could be forgiven for briefly considering therein lies the solution. If we temporarily forget that the elderly we wish to monitor are humans, with emotions, then one could argue it is ideal – a remote carer could see exactly what is going on live and react to any untoward scenario. Perfect, right? If you answered yes, take a moment to consider how you would feel being under constant surveillance, whether it's for your benefit or not; none of us are comfortable with having our privacy taken away, especially in the sanctity of our own homes. So immediately any monitoring technology involving video recording in the home becomes out of the question.

Perhaps we need to take a step back and ask ourselves what type of events we actually want to monitor. What would first spring to mind is likely to be those most terminal, such as receiving the information that someone has had a fall, stopped breathing, or worse. Such events can be tracked directly – in fact using the very same XeThru (www.xethru.com) technology I recently reviewed to monitor baby's breathing movements (opsy.st/XeThruMonitoring) – via embedded sensors dotted around the home; detecting both irregular movements or the complete lack of, such sensors can also be utilised to monitor internal environmental statistics throughout the home to flag any that jeopardise their level of comfort.

The second approach is less direct. Companies such as Eurosoft Systems (www.eurosoft-systems.com) are pioneering the injection of IoT gateway technologies into every day equipment the elderly use to aid their mobility, such as stair lifts. With embedded intelligence, that stair lift can make judgements on abnormal behaviour based on gathered information of normality – for instance alerting when someone is upstairs for an irregular period of time.

Monitoring beyond the "tier 1" of potentially life-threatening incidents, what we'd describe in our industry as "maintenance tasks" and in this circumstance a task such as the taking of medicine at specific time frames, is arguably equally important as any failure to adhere properly to a doctor's advice of what and when medication should be taken can cause a tier 1 scenario in itself. The SMARTpack looks to address just that. It's a smart, Internet-enabled pill dispenser that can be flexibly programmed to alert the patient, or their relatives, should the time-specific compartment not be opened within a specified time frame.

With so many possibilities emerging in this rapidly expanding application area, it's true that no one solution on its own can provide the desired level of care – they must be used in combination. Combining such technologies relies on the manufacturers implementing open infrastructures, which it's refreshing to see they are from the very start of this elderly care revolution.

Rory Dear (Technical Contributor)
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