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For the elderly, smart homes mean the promise of more freedom

Bryn Huntpalmer | June 28, 2016
While not a panacea, new technologies promise to enable the elderly to stay in their homes longer and more safely

In that scenario, one imagines a world where merely speaking to a device could spur it into action, rather than tapping away at a smart phone (even if Siri can be integrated using HomeKit, it still requires the push of a button). For someone with arthritis or bad eyesight or any other number of health issues, that would make for a vital difference.

Those improvements would make daily life easier for the elderly, but what about preventing or managing emergency situations? Environmental sensors are the proposed solution.

Researchers at Washington State University have been working on what they call a "smart environment," their focus being on providing caretakers with data about residents' movements and actions. Everything, from a walk to the kitchen to a patient's water usage, could be tracked and mined by sensors installed throughout the dwelling.

Eventually the developers imagine the technology being thorough enough to sense whether or not a resident has taken medications. This level of monitoring would require a slew of devices-pressure-sensing floors, smart furniture, and medical sensors, for instance, in addition to integrated appliances-and would require devices to be smart enough to interpret context at a highly nuanced level. While certainly not impossible, considering the current difficulties home automation is having with connectivity, it seems unlikely that we'll see this high level of technology retrofitted to homes with existing smart appliances anytime soon.

Robotics as a solution to elder care

Automation systems in the homes of the elderly would still put strain on the medical field-they'd need a health aide or caretaker on standby in order to function. Robotic aides, however, may present an interesting option. Aides are already being tested and used in Europe and in Japan, where trained health care providers and facilities are struggling to keep up with rapidly aging populations.

In some cases, these robot workers would even integrate with smart home systems. Assistants currently being developed in Sweden, for instance, can interpret data from environmental sensors that monitor inhabitants' movements, blood pressure and sugar levels, as well as temperature and humidity. Integrating medical and activity monitoring seems like the next logical step for devices intended for vulnerable populations-a system that could not only be alerted if a resident fell, but also if they were in danger of a heart attack.

Here again, it's the connectivity that is the missing ingredient-motion and bio sensors, appliances, and robots all need to be able to communicate with one another and interpret data in a way that makes sense.

Additionally, AI developers are hoping their programming and devices may not only prove beneficial for their owners' health and safety, but that they'll ease symptoms of dementia, too.  It's been shown that daily conversation, even online, can lessen cognitive decline. Bots may never be able to replace the warmth of the human touch, but with health care centers increasingly cash-strapped and limited by fewer resources, they can provide a level of attention elderly residents might not receive otherwise.Even skeptical caretakers have come around after seeing the difference they can make in their patients' lives.


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