Living independently in their own homes for as long as possible – many older adults want to make this dream come true. Smart assistance solutions and other assistive technology increasingly help people age in place. The German Society for Gerontechnology (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Gerontotechnik, GGT) aims to foster this development and help shape its future.
REHACARE.com talked to Martina Koepp, Managing Director of GGT, about smart assistance solutions, discussed obstacles and pondered the future of the sector.
Ms. Koepp, GGT aims to foster "quality of life in all phases of life". How can this be achieved through products and services that are compatible with a generation’s lifestyle and values?
Martina Koepp: For us, older users are a proving ground because they already have specific expectations of products due to increasing functional problems and cognitive decline. That’s why our considerations always put these users center stage. In doing so, we make sure that all product development is automatically also suitable for younger users. It is important to us that we don’t design products for the different age groups (young or old) as it may perpetuate stigma and would not be liked and accepted by customers. We want products that are actually good for everyone and have cross-generational appeal.
A great example of this is a curbless (walk-in) shower. In the past, it was primarily considered a wheelchair-accessible shower. People only asked about non-slip flooring and nobody even realized that a curbless shower offers comfort and accessibility to all users. There might come a point in our lives when we might need one and it might actually serve a completely different purpose. That’s fine because this type of shower is generally suited for all generations. These days, it is a living aid like no other.
How important is gerontechnology for you in general as it pertains to our society?
Koepp: The German word "Gerontotechnik" is a GGT word creation; a neologism that was created when GGT was founded and it is still protected as a GGT trademark. The term describes the approach that puts demographic changes and the challenges for markets at the center of considerations. This means taking a closer look at aging and an aging society and generating new concepts for products and services and bringing them to market.
But what is even more important to us is that we have helped change the mindset about growing older in the economic and societal context. We prompted a rethinking of views on aging and fight negative stereotypes and stigma by fostering a more differentiated approach: aging is a normal part of life and a matter of course. Taking a new look at aging was actually our primary intention. We are very pleased to see that this is not only reflected in some of today’s products but also in marketing approaches and the general perception of aging.
The GGT booth at REHACARE is an umbrella joint stand. Visitors will find many products and industries in one place. For Martina Koepp, this is what makes the booth so charming.
What role do (smart) assistance systems or smart home solutions play in this setting?
Koepp: Smart home, smart living, AAL (ambient assisted living) – everything works together. Home automation systems or a building that is directed toward the requirements and needs of its users and provides assistance – these aspects are obviously very important as part of our approach and certainly something that will become increasingly important in the future. Generally speaking, user acceptance is always crucial for the success of a product. The bottom line is, assistance systems or smart home solutions must successfully serve the users. You must meet their requirements and needs and avoid overwhelming them. If building plans and the respective technology ultimately serve people and prove helpful, then we fully embrace these solutions. We are also heavily involved in the development process. However – and it bears repeating – it must truly be user-centered or user-driven. This is not about adopting technology for technology’s sake, but about the human being, who must be at the center of attention.
How important is assistive technology as it pertains to self-determination and accessible living in your own home – both for the elderly and people with disabilities?
Koepp: It’s very important. That being said, market acceptance is, unfortunately, still low at the moment. Meanwhile, assistance systems can be important when it comes to reducing barriers and fostering independent living.
What obstacles and challenges do you see?
Koepp: Needless to say, there are heightened privacy concerns. Many users are afraid of what might happen with their data and are thus unwilling to consider smart home solutions.
There are also some ethical concerns, especially if you think of assistance systems for people with dementia. These systems emphasize observation, monitoring and are tracking devices. This is yet another area where we as a society and business leaders must decide how we want to effectively deal with these kinds of ethical dilemmas. While users have a sense of how this benefits them, they are also concerned about data protection and have possible ethical concerns. Customers have not yet fully accepted these concepts. Right now, this still puts a damper on the economic success of these types of systems in the marketplace.
What do you think needs to change?
Koepp: Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves. Family caregivers, who are very grateful for these types of systems are also involved in this scenario. They need to understand that this advantage goes along with some ethical concerns. These need to be considered and discussed with the affected person. Ideally, that person makes the ultimate decision on his/her own.
In other words, the ethical debate has to be solved at the user level.
As far as data protection is concerned, there needs to be a common communication platform for manufacturers that also has the support of policy-makers and maybe a seal of approval that guarantees that data is not transferred to a third-party.
What future prospects do you see for this sector?
Koepp: Aging in place and remaining independent in your home for as long as possible, is an important topic that will continue to shape the future – and it will also affect the electronics industry in a broader sense. And since there aren’t enough inpatient facilities to care and support these adults, this approach will certainly continue to gain popularity. Today, two-thirds of those in need of care are cared for at home by family members. The home is already a very important destination and will only increase in importance. To be able to age in place and keep living at home, these systems will eventually have to find their way into our daily lives, but the sector still needs to work on the acceptance part of the equation. We have the technology, but manufacturers must be willing to open up their isolated applications to other interfaces. But I think that’s the least of our problems.
What can REHACARE 2020 visitors look forward to at the GGT booth?
Koepp: Visitors can always expect to get the latest overview of different industries from us! We specialize in construction and living aspects – that’s one of our core competencies and something REHACARE visitors look for and expect when they come to us. Having said that, we also showcase innovations in mobility and health care. We are currently collaborating with a large manufacturer to design walkers for specific disabilities.
This is what we have in store for REHACARE 2020: updated market overviews featuring different industries and products and – above all – comprehensive support and guidance with strict neutrality. As a non-profit organization, we always stand for information and competence.