How technology empowers the elderly to age with independence
"Age-friendly innovation should be created in a way to empower the elderly and not make them feel in need of help. At the early stage, it is all about building up trust."
Vice President Product Development and Innovation, TÜV SÜD
Thursday, September 21, 2017
There’s been a lot of news in recent years about the “demographic time-bomb” — an unprecedented rise in the age of the world’s population. According to the UN’s World Population Prospects: 2015 Revision report1, the number of people aged 65 years or over has increased substantially in recent years in most countries, and is set to rise further in the future.
According to demographics experts2, a number of countries are currently at very high risk from this phenomenon, and age-related spending is expected to rise as presented in the infographics below. A well-known example is Japan, where some say the aging population is already taking a noticeable toll on the country’s economy. Germany and Italy are also facing the same trend, with the likes of South Korea not far behind3.
It is clear that instead of scaremongering and hand-wringing, action must be taken now to adapt cities, houses and healthcare services to meet the needs of older people. With fewer young people around to provide care for increasing numbers of elderly citizens, we need technology to lend a hand.
A number of proactive companies, government groups and NGOs are now looking for ways to create a future where our homes and healthcare are friendlier to the needs of older citizens. Japan’s Society 5.0 roadmap for a super-smart society4, for instance, is a notable action plan.
City planners, IT experts, urban developers and government officials know that developing age-friendly technology is a journey into uncharted waters. Age-friendly tech is, for the most part, still nascent. But with the right network of help and support, smart tech solutions could soon help the world ease into an age-friendly, technology-rich future.
Much has been made of the potential of the Internet of Things (IoT), smart devices that can communicate with one another, and their owners. For those tasked with looking after the elderly, the potential value of such devices is apparent. Smart devices could also bestow the elderly with a renewed lease of independence.
In Thailand’s Chon Buri, Dell and Intel have teamed up to pioneer a smart wristband system5 for elderly residents. These Bluetooth-enabled wearables monitor citizens’ walking distance and sleeping patterns, and send alerts to healthcare professionals if they detect an irregularity.
IT innovators are also looking into improving Personal Emergency Response Systems — light, wireless, smart mobile devices that link via apps to family members or healthcare providers. These devices let the elderly venture out independently; safe in the knowledge that if an emergency should occur, help will be at hand.
Japanese innovators, meanwhile, are making ultra-thin, ultra-light wearable monitoring devices6. Elderly users can easily attach these to their clothes or bedding, and just as easily remove them before doing the laundry.
While talk of smart home solutions may still conjure up images of the Jetsons, home electronics manufacturers are now taking smart home solutions very seriously indeed — as are urban developers.
Recent innovations include digital medication dispensers and mattress-mounted bed sensors7 in the United States, as well as a care-administering robot in Greece8. Many South Korean apartments are being built with the needs of elderly residents in mind. Think: Facial recognition software and wristband keys9 in new residential complexes.
There are more healthcare developments for the elderly to look forward to, shares Asli Solmaz-Kaiser, TÜV SÜD’s Vice President for Product Development & Innovation. “Some refer to these technological advances as Ambient Assisted Living (AAL). New innovations include RFID-tagged slippers that help prevent falls and also prevent dementia patients from getting lost. There are also gloves fitted with sensors that help combat tremors for Parkinson’s disease sufferers,” says Solmaz-Kaiser.
Smart homes and robotics could give older citizens the chance to continue staying in their own residences; avoiding care homes and boosting their autonomy.
Although tech looks set to become our most powerful ally to solve this global demographic conundrum, things are not quite so straightforward.
IoT and smart home devices have plenty of detractors, and some claim that they open a back door “for Big Brother10,” providing a way for companies to spy on their customers. Left unchecked, smart devices run real risks of violating industry standards and protocols — undermining the trust of the very people they were designed to help.
Part of the problem lies with the fact that tech innovators are often in the dark about legal matters and privacy issues. And as smart care devices often transmit highly sensitive personal data, cybersecurity is another potential obstacle to progress.
There is a danger, say critics, that cyber-villains might be able to exploit security flaws in unsecured devices and steal personal data, or exploit new potential phishing opportunities that IoT devices may present.
For manufacturers new to this market, it is also relatively easy to forget, for instance, that older citizens may struggle to read small font sizes or access information presented on smaller screens.
It’s important to ensure that AAL devices are not only age-friendly, but are also designed to fit seamlessly into existing infrastructure networks, says Solmaz-Kaiser. If not they run the risk of being too difficult to integrate into daily usage.
She explains, “Such disruptive technologies are very-forward looking, but may be incompatible with existing technology and broader healthcare systems. That is why some of these innovations need to be introduced in collaboration with other stakeholders at the early stages of development. Caregivers of the elderly are important stakeholders, and gaining their trust to work with these devices is crucial in rolling out technology for usage.”
Solmaz-Kaiser adds that AAL solutions must take the psychological concerns of end-users into account, “so that elderly users do not worry that they are being monitored or in need of help,” says Solmaz-Kaiser.
With expert knowledge of privacy protocols and cybersecurity-related matters, TÜV SÜD supports innovators and healthcare professionals with both hardware- and software-related issues. Also secure cloud services, which is extremely crucial for smart home and AAL environment, can be provided by TÜV SÜD.
Certifiers can also test products for electromagnetic immunity and emissions, check that data security meets industry standards, and make key tests on batteries, chemical safety and ergonomics.
Enlisting the help of the likes of TÜV SÜD at the design stage means inventors can build compliance into their creations, rather than adding it as a mere afterthought, running the risk of rework or even product recall.
Furthermore, innovators who make a commitment to meeting internationally recognised quality and safety standards are more likely to win customer confidence. Extending this ethos to cybersecurity builds yet another layer of trust. TÜV SÜD’s data security services, which include IT penetration testing, data protection audits and industrial security as well as cloud security are helping inventors build smarter and safer age-friendly devices.
There seems to be no way to turn back the hands of time on what is being dubbed the “demographic time-bomb.” Compelling evidence indicates that the technology mentioned above is already much-needed in many countries.
In fact, the seeds of change have already been sown. Super-aged societies are now inevitable. But if we can continue to harness the power of innovation, there is no reason why proactive schemes and technological prowess will not let human society adapt—and embrace—the paradigm shift of ageing populations.