Future of Care Conference 3rd March 2020
Accommodating an Ageing Population
18th February 2020
It is invariably the case that with old age comes reduced mobility, with many older adults downscaling their homes as they become less active. This often perpetuates mobility reduction and the onset of frailty, resulting in higher risk of falls or injury and consequently non-elective visits to hospitals.
The use of smart technologies, including smart homes, could make life better for older people, enabling them to retain their independence and relieve the pressure on the NHS. The challenge with creating any kind of smart home is to create an environment that provides safety and security by reducing the occurrence of falls and accidents, is accessible to those with disability or chronic illness, while reducing stress, fear or social isolation. Unfortunately, the UK’s failure to build enough new housing over the last 30 years means there is a severe lack of suitable properties, let alone ones that are technologically suitable for older people.
If smart homes and their associated technologies are to gain greater approval, then engineers and designers must abandon the notion that older people want devices that make them stand out as being ‘old’. On the contrary, older people do not want to be defined by the technology they use. They are becoming more discerning when it comes to the devices they surround themselves with, and they want technology that supports them while being minimally invasive.
A well-designed smart home must include technology that is adaptable, easy to use and most of all, cost effective. Creating discrete devices and equipment that can either be worn or built into clothing or hidden in home furniture and appliances and put away when not in use, must be a priority.
We must then consider how simple technological adaptions could not only change the way we live, but create economies of scale for age-friendly devices. To stimulate market demand for smart homes, companies must better understand the needs of older people who, for the most part, do not want to downsize into small, poorly located and inaccessible properties, but who want appropriately sized homes, close to amenities, healthcare and transport links, located near family with flexible adaptive technology built-in.
There lies before us an opportunity to create demand for new and retro-fitted technology which product suppliers and manufacturers must begin to prepare themselves for or face losing out to more responsive, age-friendly businesses.
The UK must start to recognise that it needs to change its view of what it is to be older and in doing so address:
- How our failing housing infrastructure must be made fit for purpose.
- What our medical technology (MedTech), construction and building services industries can do to provide appropriate technology and housing.
We must then challenge our Government to take a bolder, long-term vision to address the social and medical issues faced by our ageing population if it is to incentivise both the technology and construction industries.
Creating a new standard for housing design and construction fit for the 21st century must be the priority. Policies which motivate construction companies to build intergenerational houses and mixed home communities that are ‘assistive-technology ready’ should be created. Our old age should not be seen as a barrier to technology but a doorway to new technological opportunities.
Dr Helen Meese CEng MIMechE
CEO, The Care Machine Ltd
Trustee, Institution of Mechanical Engineers