Chris Netherton, M.D.

Smarter homes that protect the health of older people

With snow and ice affecting many parts of the country and generally making the lives of our older population much more difficult, many routine operations in hospitals have been cancelled in case those services are needed in an emergency for patients that have suffered falls and breaks. The elderly are especially at risk at this time, especially as weather conditions might well make it impossible for carers to visit as regularly as they normally would.

It is therefore timely to see a new report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers which has highlighted how modifications to the homes of older people could help them to live independently for much longer – and save billions for our healthcare system.

This fascinating report has called for more work to be done by the government and by building companies to gear the design of homes around the needs of the elderly. The report, called Healthy Homes: Accommodating an Ageing Population, points out that around seven million homes in the UK are currently headed up by someone who is aged over 65 years, and that many of these people will need assistance with daily living, let alone during extreme weather conditions, sometime over the next decade.

A lot of people downsize their home as they age, but this is not always beneficial for their health. Being in a smaller property can lead to people being less active, which can cause problems with mobility and increase the risk of falls. There are simple, low-tech modifications which can easily be retro-fitted at a cost of a few hundred pounds and can make a big difference. Installing handrails and slip-resistant surfaces and improving outside lighting have been shown to reduce injuries by 39% and lead to a 26% drop in required medical treatment.

Even at a basic level, simple things can be done to improve the support for elderly family members choosing to live alone. For example, I’ve installed a simple high resolution Wifi camera in my mother’s living room, Wifi linked to my mobile phone. Whilst I visit her almost every day, the Wifi camera gives me peace of mind as I’m still able to monitor her well-being several times a day from my phone. I can pan and tilt the camera to check that she hasn’t fallen and I can even talk to her through the camera, which I had to do once as she’d forgotten to hang-up the phone. A simple sign of what is easily available today – and at a very low price tag.

Beyond these currently available approaches, we know that smart technology could play a highly valuable role in delivering the needs of older people. However, the uptake of this new technology has so far been relatively slow among this age group, as many products are poorly designed and aesthetically unappealing. The report calls for technology designers and housebuilders to involve elderly people in the creation of new products and services, so that their views are taken into account.

At the moment, the UK is lagging behind some of the other developed countries in the adoption of this kind of assistive technology for the elderly. For example, in Japan there has been a big focus on new technologies such as robotics that can assist with elderly care and modifications to cars that make them safer and easier for older people to drive. Fujitsu has reported that it has sold over 20 million phones with larger buttons and simplified functions which the elderly find easier to use.

The growth of the Internet of Things will help support this trend towards healthier, smarter homes. It is estimated that by 2020, the average home will have over 500 connected devices, ranging from light bulbs to washing machines.

From the work that Microtest does in healthcare software systems and electronic health records, I can see how valuable it would be to have continuous health tracking for older people via their ‘smart home.’ Not only would this reduce the frequency of visits to a local clinic for monitoring purposes, but it would also help to detect a developing health issue before it became acute. From major symptoms such as changes in heart rate or blood pressure, to behavioural changes such as disruption of sleeping patterns, the smart home would have the potential to gather a much more comprehensive health database on each person, which could be used to guide more personalised care.

Smarter homes and smarter living to help the elderly remain in their own homes could lead to saving our healthcare system over:

£2.5 Billion per year.

This would also have benefits for carers and close relatives. With the permission of their loved one, they could be kept ‘in the loop’ with all this information, so that they can play a more useful role in collaboration with the medical professionals.

The other factor that will help drive the growth of the smart home will be the extent to which those entering the ‘older’ age group are increasingly comfortable with using this kind of technology. Our older citizens are becoming more and more tech savvy – especially when they are motivated by being able to see clear benefits of using the new technology.

The team at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers estimate that by moving to a smarter homes approach, and by keeping elderly people independent and living in their own homes for longer, there would be a saving to our healthcare system of over £2.5 billion per year.

This is yet another example of how new technology is re-shaping the way we think about healthcare.