Our living space reveals a lot about us. It undergoes many changes as the years go by and – with any luck - adapts to our circumstances. Sooner or later accessibility becomes an important issue for all of us. When it comes to our own four walls, this may consist of technology that enables us to live a self-determined life or may involve smart home devices and assistance systems that could lower caregiver stress and relieve the care sector. REHACARE.com takes a closer look at the new tech options and reviews the difficulties that might go along as it pertains to the subject of living.
Technical assistance systems and smart home applications are also becoming increasingly interesting in the area of living.
Sustainable living spaces should benefit all residents. This means housing associations not only have to be considerate of the special needs of different age structures but must also factor in the different backgrounds and physical abilities of their residents. Inclusive design is at the heart of supportive building projects initiated by the Wohnungs-und Siedlungs-GmbH Düsseldorf (Düsseldorf Housing Association), whose majority shareholder is the VdK NRW (Social services organization in Düsseldorf, Germany). Although there are housing associations that attach importance to an inclusive living environment, there are still not enough accessible living spaces in Germany. Younger people with disabilities are forced to compete for accessible space with the aging population in a local housing market that’s already tight to begin with. That’s why accessibility requirements and guidelines should not just be factored in when it comes to new construction, but should also be reflected in existing buildings and facilities. In the PRODUCTS & NEWS Forum at REHACARE, Schmidt Architekten showed how these concepts can be successfully implemented. The GutjahrArchitekt experts in public building and workspace design also specialize in accessibility.
Smart Homes and Ambient Assisted Living
Apart from structural measures, digital assistants are also gaining in popularity. Even though smart home applications presently still face slow adoption, digital networks are definitely on the rise. However, in addition to obstacles they encounter in accessible housing, people with disabilities also face similar challenges when it comes to digital participation. The German Youth Association of People with Hearing Loss has developed a voice assistant solution that communicates with systems like Alexa, Google Home or Cortana to accommodate people who express themselves in alternative ways. The SIGNS smart tool recognizes and translates German sign language in real-time with the help of an integrated camera and converts these gestures into a data format that the voice assistants can understand. The long-term goal of the project collaboration is to use machine learning to identify other body gestures and sign languages. Another objective is to create a comprehensive sign language assistant that works with smartphones. The tool is currently set up to work with laptops and tablets.
As is the case with other devices, accessible systems can also be used to secretly spy on users at home. IT experts have long warned that interconnected devices and home tech systems make users increasingly susceptible to hacker attacks. After all, cheap smart home devices come with cheap software, thus increasing user vulnerability as security is expensive and comes with a higher price tag. All it takes is an unsecured device that allows attackers to take control over a home network. The more we are digitally connected, the more we tend to – sometimes unintentionally- reveal about ourselves. Privacy concerns especially prompt older people to be skeptical about smart home products.
That being said, technology and digitization clearly make our lives better and easier. Sooner or later smart digital systems will find their way into all homes. The challenge is to create solutions that accommodate as many people as possible, even though we all have unique needs. As Alexander Karl of the Kempten University of Applied Sciences explains, "You have to try to build a functioning system around a person", yet you have to realize that you "may require the not-so-tech-savvy to work with technology." That’s why the laboratory engineer at AAL Living Lab works on researching and developing technology-based assistance systems that help people with disabilities to live a self-determined life and age in place. REHACARE.com sat down with the expert to talk about his research and discuss the market trend for technical assistance systems in the interview titled "Technology-based Assistance Systems: Aging in Place."
Not all older people are technophile. But as the current generation is also getting older, smart systems will sooner or later find their way into our homes.
Assistance systems and eCare relieve the care sector
In light of an increase in life expectancy and demographic change, the subjects of aging and accessibility are increasingly important. Starting this year, Alexander Karl is also involved in another project that focuses on digitization. The Bavarian Center for Digital Care (Bayerisches Zentrum Pflege Digital) aims to tackle the tense situation in the care sector and relieve stressful caregiver settings. The Center wants to develop, research and analyze digital tools and systems to provide practical implementation advice. Even though research and the use of technical supports are by no means new concepts – especially in the caregiving arena -, not much has thus far been done when it comes to digital networks and infrastructure in this setting. Meanwhile, the traditional "analog" system has reached the limit of its performance a long time ago.
Technology-based assistance systems can help to support and relieve caregivers or family members. That’s also why eCare is increasingly attracting attention. Gabriele Bunse, managing director of AKVIGO believes "we require systems that support the care sector in light of the increasing number of people in need of caregiving services. We should use every tool that can actively support people in living a self-determined life." Her company has developed TAB IN TIME, an automated system that ensures the correct administration of medication. "TAB in TIME allows accessible, safe and timely access to vitally important medication" and prompts sufficient fluid intake during and after administration. Find out more about the system in our article: eCare: How startups are driving the digitization of healthcare. For patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, who in some cases must take medication up to ten times a day, technology support might promote aging in place and provide relief for outpatient care services and family members. What’s more, the system is easy to set up and use.
The importance of identifying a target audience
Ease-of-use is often a major hurdle when it comes to user acceptance of smart home devices or AAL systems, says Martina Koepp, managing director of the German Society for Gerontechnology (GGT). "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." Different users also have different requirements and demands. "People in their 90s are confronted with the latest technology and may have never even held a smartphone in their hands. This aspect is even more complex when you consider dementia cases," Alexander Karl points out. While family members appreciate the technology-based assistance systems and know how to use them, they face a host of other problems. Martina Koepp: "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." After all, two-thirds of those in need of care are cared for at home by family members. "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."
Varomo UG has identified the requirements and concerns of its target group and has integrated them into its CAREcules robot. Even though the technical assistant is controllable and quite smart, it is unobtrusive and doesn’t need an internet connection and cameras, is easy to use and can also be retrofitted to include telemonitoring system if needed. Thomas Link, founder and managing director of the startup, is certain that "smart tech systems can promote a self-determined life: they help to compensate for physical or mental impairments due to illness or aging." And "a growing percentage of the older population wants to maintain a high quality of life even as they age. Products like the CAREcules robot, which help make this wish come true, will become safer, more user-friendly, more reliable and more affordable in the future."
Not everything, must be regulated with the latest technology. Ambient Assisted Living also means that a building simply provides assistance where it is needed.
Technology as a support, not an obstacle
That being said, AAL is not just about technology-based assistance systems. It generally focuses on smart solutions that don't have to be digital. "People tend to associate AAL with big technology, which typically also requires a big investment. For me, AAL also means integrating smart solutions, which don’t necessarily have to be technical," says Alexander Karl. Martina Koepp agrees and adds, "This is not about adopting technology for technology’s sake, but about the human being, who must be at the center of attention." Find out how GGT views aging and what approach the Society pursues with its gerontechnology word creation in our article: Smart Living: Gerontechnology centers on people.
Gabriele Bunse's motto also reflects this notion: "Technology for the benefit of humanity." It’s clear that technology can make our lives easier and better, but it cannot replace human interaction and the human touch. Even though our home can be our sanctuary, it should not become a place of solitary confinement. That is why accessibility matters and is crucial in all areas of life - it leads to increased and equal participation, which ultimately benefits all of us alike. And that applies to both structural and digital accessibility.
Anne Hofmann (Translated by Elena O'Meara) REHACARE.com