Ageing in place technology: revolutionising retirement living

The innovation team from ExtraCare Charitable Trust recently triumphed at the Senior Housing Awards, winning the “Best Use of Technology in Seniors Housing” award. Here, their Research and Technology Lead Kerry Stack explains how their appliance of science is breaking down barriers and helping older people age in place.

ExtraCare’s involvement in this field first came about when a new department was created back in 2018 with a focus on innovation and technology.

ExtraCare, The University of the West of England and Bristol Robotics Lab collaborated in the form of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) specifically looking at how smart technology could be used to improve the lives of residents by helping them to remain independent for longer.

An innovation apartment at Solihull Retirement Village was created as a “test bed” for smart devices set up in a real apartment, and this became a catalyst for providing “smart markets” in our locations. These markets allow residents to borrow devices free of charge, to trial them in their own apartment for a few months before deciding whether to buy them.  

We have a number of innovative ageing in place technologies at the charity which we are implementing across our locations. We are tapping into smart technology that use multi-purpose sensors to monitor motion, temperature, light, UV and humidity to investigate issues that residents may be having. A sensor can help staff understand why an individual appears to be more tired than normal by monitoring motion in their apartment during the night.

Frequent trips to the bathroom shown by motion could indicate a urine infection; a lack of light and not opening the blinds in the day could be a sign of depression. In the past, a sensor could only show you what had happened previously. Now, using our “SmartThings Hub”, we can suggest smart devices that work with it as part of the solution.

Promoting wellbeing

Our devices support and enhance quality of life for our residents in a variety of ways. Notably residents have a combination of technology and specialist staff such as Dementia and Mental Wellbeing Enablers. A number of residents have benefitted from the support. One resident who has limited vison and a mobility issue used the smart market to try out a sleep sensor and smart bulbs. We synced the lights with the sleep sensor so when she goes to bed at night the lights turn off automatically, saving the need for her to reach over to the light switch and potentially falling off the bed. If she gets up during the night the lights switch on and switch off again when she gets back into b

The resident went on to buy her sleep sensor and smart bulbs after trialling them on the smart market. She told us that the devices give her confidence to feel safe walking to the bathroom at night. She said, “I couldn’t be without them now.”

Taking advantage of smart technology can be the difference between being independent or needing to move to a care home or bringing a carer into their home. Tasks such as providing reminders, hoovering the apartment, making a cup of coffee, and closing the blinds can be assisted with smart technology. Devices such as the sleep monitoring sensor under the mattress synced to the lights reduces falls during the night. Being able to control devices with just a voice means one less journey to a light switch, coffee machine or anything that a smart plug can be used with. If a resident has mobility issues or arthritis these small things help. 

Family involvement

Family members have peace of mind using apps for devices in their parents’ home such as motion sensors to check their parents’ wellbeing without needing to be there all the time. There are also non-smart devices out there such as magic plugs which are useful too, they help prevent a sink overflowing leading to a flood by releasing a mechanism in the plug when the weight of the water reaches a certain point. This is very useful for people with cognitive issues who forget to turn taps off, or people with hearing impairments that stop them hearing the water running.

Technology with the aim of keeping people healthier and in their own homes for as long as possible is advancing rapidly. There are of course occasionally challenges to introducing smart technology. The three main barriers for implementing devices are a resident’s fear of technology, the cost of buying devices that may turn out not be suitable, and quality of Wi-Fi connectivity.  

Through the smart market, ExtraCare have reduced or eliminated the first two barriers because residents don’t need to part with any money in order to try the devices. Either myself or my team will install the devices in their apartment and show them how to use the relevant app or how to use a voice enabled assistant such as Amazon Alexa to turn on lights, plugs and more. This usually gives residents the confidence to try more devices as time goes on therefore reducing their fear of trying new technology.

We have a workaround for the challenge of residents not having their own wi-fi. We can lend them a device called a Mi-fi which uses data from a sim card to run the smart devices during the loan period.

Resident adoption

In terms of resident adoption of our technology it’s a mixed bag, initially, some say they don’t see the need for it but once we explain how it can help them specifically, they get it. Others come to the open day which is an event where a range of devices are demonstrated.  

Some residents come along to see if they can get help with a specific issue or impairment. Some start off with one device from the smart market and end up with a replica of the innovation apartment because they add more and more devices. Some don’t want to engage with technology, but we cater for them too by providing non-technology based assistive gadgets such as button hooks to help with getting dressed, jar openers, or soapy soles which stick to the shower floor and are helpful for people who can’t reach their feet without assistance.

Our smart devices complement the care and services ExtraCare already provide. In each of our locations staff will have access to a set of SmartThings, multi-sensors, and a hub which investigates changes in a resident’s behaviour. This will help staff such as Dementia and Mental Wellbeing Enablers to support residents to live in their own home for longer, as well as providing them with the evidence they may need when GP’s, social workers, healthcare workers etc are making decisions on a person’s care. 

Early adoption

It’s important to be an early adopter of technology, with a growing ageing population and workforce shortages it is inevitable that technology will bridge some of that gap, whilst at the same time enabling people to live in their own home which is the outcome that ultimately everyone wants.

If potential residents or their families are considering selecting a retirement location, I would suggest looking at how the company treats their residents when age related conditions such as dementia are present. Has the company invested in the best staff who use everything available to them including the latest technology to enhance a person’s quality of living to keep them in their own home? If a company is investing in technology and research to provide their residents with the best chance of having a home for a long time, that can only be a good sign.

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