Ageing gracefully in place

Amy Wallington explores the possibilities that a niche market like assisted living presents to home technology professionals.

Home automation is a growing market with almost endless opportunities. The last decade has seen technology advancing at such a fast pace that the way we are living every day is constantly changing. And that isn’t only happening inside the home; workplaces are adjusting and developing, especially since the pandemic as work habits change. Automotive is another market that is expanding, with driverless cars just around the corner.

With the endless opportunities that home automation and other technology brings, just one part of that is assisted living. As people are living longer, healthcare around the world is increasingly stretched, and care homes are becoming overwhelmed, home automation presents many opportunities to allow elderly people to stay safely in their homes for longer while keeping their independence.

According to a survey published by AARP Research, 76% of adults aged 50 and older want to remain in their current homes as they age, while 77% indicate they want to live in their communities, even if their own homes won’t meet their needs.

Unfortunately, this market is very niche and not enough professionals are exploring the opportunities presented by home automation for assisted living. Some of the drawbacks include not enough education around assisted living and the possibilities. There’s also very little funding from governments or independent bodies around the world to help the elderly and disabled get what they need from a smart home. Additionally, the thought of technology controlling the home can be very daunting to some elderly people so the products need to be easy to use and intuitive that will help the resident.

Things are starting to turn around though, with more people realising the opportunities to help people and manufacturers making products specifically to help this market.

The Aragon Companion offline smart speaker is an ideal solution for ageing in place. Image: ProKNX

Smart assistants

ProKNX is a French company that creates offline smart home assistants to use in different environments, such as homes, hotels, and offices with a strong focus on developing offline smart home speakers with special features to allow frail people to stay in their homes for longer.

There are many advantages to the smart assistant being offline, including residents feeling assured that their privacy is respected. It also does not need an internet connection in order to work and this means that data cannot be accessed and everything stays private. Nothing is recorded and nothing is transmitted to the cloud. The resident also does not need to give any personal details or set up an account to install or use the device.

The Aragon Companion is the latest smart speaker from the company which is designed specifically to help old people at home to stay safe and live independently with unobtrusive monitoring.

Lisa Watson, ProKNX later living consultant says: “Falls are one of the leading causes of injury to older people, particularly when they are living alone. Unobtrusive monitoring of the resident’s daily routine is essential to their safety. A smart speaker, such as the Aragon Companion, that can interpret data on a device sent to it from local monitoring equipment, can quickly contact a nominated person outside the home as soon as the assistant detects a change in routine, such as an unusually long time spent in the bathroom. The local nature of the detection is crucial as the speed of response can dramatically alter the outcome of the incident.”

Unobtrusive monitoring is just one of four parameters that Watson believes is needed to maintain autonomous living for an elderly person. Home control is also very important, as Watson explains: “Home automation has already been proven to be very beneficial for people who are beginning to lose their autonomy. Voice-controlled smart assistants can manipulate lights, heating, blinds, and more, making life more comfortable for a person who may be frail or have movement difficulties. The need to check that the lights or heating are off is no longer a concern as a simple short command from the comfort of a bed or chair can ensure that all devices are safely inactive. Automatically set scenes that raise the blinds to let in natural light, turn on warm lighting, start coffee brewing, and play soft music can allow the user to gently wake up and motivate them to start their day.”

“Unobtrusive monitoring of the resident’s daily routine is essential to their safety.”

Many people often have concerns about their elderly relative living alone in case something happens to them and they cannot call for help. Wearable devices, such as a necklace with a call button, can be used in this case, but it relies on the resident remembering to wear it. Watson believes that voice-controlled smart speakers could be the solution.

“To feel secure at home, it is imperative that an individual can contact a carer or nominated person outside for help if an untimely event occurs, such as a fall or a sudden illness. There are many wearable products on the market that can be used as summon aids. The disadvantage of these devices is that the individual concerned must remember to have them on their person at all times. Voice-controlled smart speakers solve this issue as they can be activated from anywhere in the house by a call for help from the resident. The device is then triggered to call or send an alert message to a carer, loved one, or care organisation.”

As stated earlier, smart technology can be daunting for anyone, especially the elderly. It is important that assisted living technology is designed with this in mind. “As we age, we tend to become more resistant to adopting new technology. Any smart speaker solution introduced into a futureproofed home must be intuitive to use, with a non-existent or very low learning arc that enables a person to use the device with confidence. A voice-controlled smart speaker is the first choice for an individual who is apprehensive about adopting unknown technology. The ability to use the assistant by speaking to it with natural, every day language leads to much greater acceptance and use of the smart device.”

Not only can smart homes help the elderly to live safely, they can also help them to stay well without deterioration due to the home being more comfortable.

“Poor quality, un-adapted, hazardous, poorly heated and poorly insulated housing can lead to older people having reduced mobility, depression, chronic and acute illness, falls, social isolation, and loneliness,” adds Christian Geisselmann, founder and CEO of AdaptEco. “Appropriate housing can keep older people healthy, support independent living and reduce the need for social care. The costs of poor housing to the NHS [the UK’s National Health Service] is estimated to be £1.4bn per annum, of which nearly half (£624m) is attributed to poor housing among older adults.”

Smart technology in elderly homes could take pressure off care givers and other health services. Image: Halfpoint / Shutterstock

Retirement living

With that in mind, it is crucial that homes are futureproofed, not only with future technology developments, but with care for later living also in mind. It’s important to understand how resident’s needs can change over time and how an integrator can prepare for that by futureproofing the property to adapt to any developments.

AdaptEco’s assisted living expert, Phil Vlach highlights: “Retirement living operators are focusing on what is important today and tomorrow, understanding that the value derived from smart assistive solutions evolves over time. As residents often move into retirement living properties while they are in good health and leading active lifestyles, these solutions initially provide convenience and comfort through the control of lighting, heating, and cooling for example, as well as related property management functions, such as non-clinical activities like concierge services, activities or communication. At this stage, these solutions provide operators with the ability to make their operations more efficient, to be proactive in their maintenance, and to reduce operating costs while providing added value to residents.”

He continues: “As residents age gracefully in place, they may develop mobility or cognitive impairments that would benefit from assistive technologies like ambient sensors to detect patterns of daily living, such as wearables or smart floors and sensors. The introduction means carers are able to proactively aid residents or to avoid incidents that would require acute care. Technology can be introduced which includes medication prompts, exercise videos, vital sign monitoring, and detection of health deterioration.”

“Appropriate housing can keep older people healthy, support independent living and reduce the need for social care.”

In order to futureproof a property and ensure that technology remains applicable to the resident, it’s important to keep an open ecosystem where products and services will work with other brands. This could be key to different needs developed in later life, but it also allows for the evolution of technology.

“It is critically important that retirement living operations select the right mix of technology solutions and strive to avoid monolithic vendor lock-in, as solutions are evolving rapidly, and legacy providers are not able to keep up,” explains Vlach. “To be successful without specialist support, operators would need deep technical expertise and sufficient resources to manage multiple solutions, integrations, and vendors. Additionally, the nature of technology solution procurement has changed from focusing on a few anchor service providers with smaller providers conforming to their needs, to orchestrating a true ecosystem of providers that work together toward the operator end goal.”

Compared with a traditional sourcing model, a vendor ecosystem involves more providers and choices of services. “The benefits of this approach are speed of innovation, agility, flexibility, and reduction in time to market new products or services,” he adds. “The challenges are ensuring smooth integration of vendor solutions, and the appropriate governance and oversight.”

There are a range of emergency wearables available but they rely on the resident to remember to wear it at all times. Image: Andrey Popov / Shutterstock

Endless opportunities

As said earlier in this article, there are almost endless opportunities when it comes to smart homes and what can be done with home automation and technology. The assisted living market carries huge opportunities but there is a long way to go with building the confidence for integrators and home technology professionals to explore this niche market.

Education is important and we are starting to see more courses being developed around this topic. With the help of manufacturers and specialists such as ProKNX and AdaptEco, products are being designed and developed specially to help ageing in place.

Although it might not be a huge money-making market (although the opportunity is certainly there), it’s an important stage in helping elderly people stay in their homes for longer where they are happier and more comfortable, while taking the pressure off health services and care givers.

Main image: Viktoriia Hnatiuk / Shutterstock