Smart homes for elderly people: non-intrusive solutions to improve safety and independence

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Refurbishing Grandma’s house? How about making it smart? (hints and tips to add sensorial and other IoT technology to create an older adult’s home safer and manageable)

 

Advancements in medical science and technology, medicine and public health coupled with increased consciousness about nutrition, environmental and personal hygiene resulted in dramatic increase in life expectancy globally. The side effect was an aging population and rising costs of healthcare and wellbeing, especially if seniors need to be institutionalized to be – and to feel – secure.

 

A large number of older adults require regular assistance for their daily living and healthcare, which are mostly supported by the family, friends or volunteers. Some of their tasks may be performed by devices and technology, while human helpers can focus more on emotional support and communication.

 

Smart homes may allow the elderly to stay in their comfortable home environments instead of expensive and limited healthcare facilities. Healthcare personnel can also keep track of the overall health condition of the elderly in real-time and provide feedback and support from distant facilities. The aged people may also require frequent, immediate medical intervention, which may otherwise result in fatal consequences. Such emergency situations can be avoided by monitoring the physiological parameters and activities of the elderly continuously. Therefore, how about turning our grandparents’ house into a smart home to support their autonomy while we can provide local and remote technical support in several ways.

 

The ICT4Life Project has an aspect of installing smart elements into elderly people’s homes without forcing them to change their life style or manage complicated devices – two elements which may be essential to make them feel good.

 

ICT4Life aims at increasing the quality of life and the autonomy of seniors with early or intermediate stage cognitive impairment at their own homes by IoT solutions. The work and efforts to achieve this goal help us to list and categorize those solutions, how to make even our Grandma’s house really smart!

 

The concept of the smart home generally focuses on actively adjust elements of a home, like controlling light, temperature, and sound. Older adults have different needs and skills to remote control a house, and as they are less active at home, passive monitoring is preferred. As voice assistants become mainstream in the smart home sector, it will change the situation, but till that we have to keep in mind the (cognitive) capabilities of our Grandmother, and maybe we should avoid solutions like using a fancy home automation smartphone application which may have a controversial effect, scaring away an elderly person from technology by finding it overcomplicated and frustrating.

 

Smart homes for elderly people can be outfitted with unobtrusive and non-invasive environmental and physiological sensors and actuators that can facilitate remote monitoring and managing of the home environment (such as temperature, humidity, and smoke in the home) as well getting information about critical vital signs (such as heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure and blood oxygen level), as well as activities of the occupants. This information can be shared with remote healthcare facilities and caregivers, allowing them to keep track of the overall physiological condition of the occupants and respond, if necessary, from a distant facility.

Possible elements of a simple, smart home set (also implemented during ICT4Life Pilots in homes and care facilities):

    • Intelligent wristband (to monitor life signs, while may also detect falling)
    • Camera (360°zenith type, with optional image pre-processor for privacy protection)
    • Kinect camera for motion tracking (again, privacy settings may apply to focus on essential functions)
    • Wireless Sensor network (for data communications)
    • Ambient sensors (to ensure a pleasant environment for its resident)
    • Door sensors (to see if they are properly closed, or if our loved one left the house in regular/unusual time periods)
    • Infra motion sensors (if trajectories can provide valuable information about behavior)
    • Software elements to collect, transmit and analyze data

 

In a smart home, sensors are connected through a Wireless Sensor Network (WSN). Wearable biomedical sensors such as body temperature and heartrate sensors can be connected in a network to obtain automated, continuous, and real-time measurement of physiological signals. Activities, position, movement, disorientation or fall events are detectable by the combination of wearable sensors like a wristband, camera system, and ambient sensors. Aggregation and forwarding of these data to a (cloud powered) system enables emotional and social caregivers to react on time, allowing them to evaluate of the progression and current status of elderly people.

 

Such a system requires an internet connection, as well as some, mostly commercially available, inexpensive devices fitted with specific software, implemented carefully for this particular user group. As Grandma may already have a  television or phone service subscription, therefore subscription to a bundled Internet service should not add so much to the bill. (smallest Internet package is enough to operate a sensor system) It is also possible that Internet is already in the house at an IPTV set-top box, next to her television. (If she also has a smart TV, ICT4Life offers a range of cognitive games on this interface).

 

Service providers tend to provide their own routers, so we have to prepare a (safe) place to put it, then install a cable raceway from the entrance point of cables to this point. As many IoT systems prefer WiFi, it is recommended to put it somewhere in the middle of the house to provide better radio signal for our devices. We could place a small computer next to our router to control of our IoT system, keeping in mind to protect it from overheating in summer.

 

Preinstalling cable raceways are also practical to hide cabling of door sensors, infra sensors, and active elements of a wireless sensor network. In the case of ICT4Life, Wireless Sensor Network is provided by four Raspberry Pis packed into the size of a soap holder.

 

Adding these elements to more common household tools – such as mobile phones specifically designed for elderly people, , and other facilities for video communications, safe household equipment (for example, with automatic turn-off functions or alerts) we may save the costs and efforts to move Grandma to a nursing home too early.  Without disturbing her, we can see any time if she is doing okay – and have the opportunity to intervene immediately if she is not.

 

Authors:

Zoltán Máthé, László Varga & Éva Lajkó

Netis Informatics Ltd.

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Picture by Freepik.com

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