Caring for the old offers big opportunities

Tom Shelley reports on the huge possibilities for electronic personal care devices based on already realised technologies

An intensive study has outlined routes to producing cost effective solutions to the problem of helping the UK's growing elderly population remain in their own homes. The study is being undertaken by a leading design house, working in conjunction with government sponsored agencies and industry. Specifications for key products are expected to be set out some time next year. Hopefully, these will lead to many more elderly people being able to live longer in their own homes, as most want, as well as providing openings for British companies in a vast and growing world market. Dr Saeed Zahedi, PDD's Head of Technology, told Eureka that a DTI grant has been obtained to set up the study as a teaching company scheme between PDD and the Biomedical Group within the Engineering Department at the University of Surrey, and the European Institute of Health, also part of the University. The inspiration has been PDD's 'Big Mother' care modelling facility, featured at last year's MDT show, and a government white paper on the subject. This showed that 85% of interviewed elderly people wanted to be able to stay in their own homes. Figures published by the Royal Commission study on Long Term Care show that 25% of the population will be aged over 60 years by 2012. One approach to the problem has been set up 'Smart' houses full of electronic intelligence and aids to monitor health and provide assistance. Demonstrator projects include the 'Smart Home' in Glasgow, the 'Millennium House' in Dulwich and the 'Orange House' in Cambridge. All, in Dr Zahedi's opinion, are very expensive to build and maintain. As part of the PDD TCS study, interviews have been undertaken with: elderly people on the verge of being transferred to care homes, council officials and GPs. The goal has been to understand what factors lead to people having to leave their own homes and what both elderly people and those responsible for their care want. In the case of women, it soon became clear that one of the main reasons for their having to go into care homes is hip fractures, while for men, it is the onset of dementia. In both cases, PDD is convinced that product engineering can be of great assistance, based on a philosophy of monitor, alert and prevent. For example, hypothermia could be prevented by both monitoring house and patient body temperature. The response could be to raise house temperature, and to alert the person, neighbours, care personnel and the person's GP that there is a developing problem that needs attention, perhaps caused by the onset of illness, or poor diet. It is well known that if a stroke is treated within three hours of occurring, a person has a greatly improved chance of recovery. It is also known that electrical signals from the brain as recorded in an electroencephalogram (EEG) change before during and after a stroke, so that if these are monitored, say, by a smart pillow, the stroke could be detected and treated within the crucial three hour period. To prevent problems from hip fracture, consideration is being made of possibly using airbag technology, in the form of a rapid inflating pad by the patient's bed, since such falls often occur when the patient falls out of bed. It might even be possible to devise rapidly inflating body pads to be worn around the pelvic area, protecting in the manner of the Michelin Man. To deal with the effects of dementia and related problems, Dr Zahedi suggests something based on wearable computers, that could remind the elderly person of the need to take medicines or perform other tasks, and transmit information to those responsible for their care. None of these ideas are science fiction. PDD has already acquired considerable expertise in its development of wearable computers for clients. In the past, PDD has done much development work for the mobile phone industry. Not a PDD development, but typical of what can be achieved is Identicom, an ID card holder with embedded mobile phone technology developed by Triteq in Hungerford. Designed to protect lone care workers, it contains a GSM phone within its 12mm thick, 70g package, activated either by pressing a button on the back, or by its being pulled off its lanyard. Either action speed dials a monitoring service and opens a voice channel. Alternatively, with what we trust would be their full knowledge and co-operation, the elderly could be tracked round their home using RFID technology. PDD has been doing work on induction loop powered chip based devices that can deliver much more than an identification number. Developed mainly for toys, they can both receive from and transmit data to a reader, allowing, for example, a toy figure to say things in an appropriate environment. Worn by the elderly, they could open doors, activate toilets and inform monitoring system exactly where the person was at any time, in case, for example, they became stuck in the bathroom or toilet, or were unable to get out of bed. If nothing else, the technology could be most useful for ordinary people if it prevented mislaying of spectacles and car keys. As an alternative, Cambridge Consultants and software partners Ubisense, are promoting a low cost ultra wide band radar technology that can locate people and objects to an accuracy of 150mm. The road map to develop the next generation of medical products is to have a formal meeting with the industrial partners by the end of 2003, with a view to establishing specifications for key products by mid 2004. This should lead to the industrial companies coming up with products, either on their own, or in collaboration with others, which can then be marketed to local authorities and government. Advantages of applied technology should include the ability of old people to live in their own homes for longer, meeting their own preferences and saving money. Neighbours and/or relatives could take part in the remote monitoring function, without feeling that they had to intrude or interfere with their own lives. Care worker visits could be targeted to those most in immediate need, and with the most appropriate kind of care, improving the quality of care, and further reducing costs. Dr Zahedi told Eureka that the scheme had already, "Managed to inspire interest from others working in this area." These apparently include Utopia initiative led by the University of Dundee in Scotland and the Faraday Partnership, also represented at MDT. Some indication of the latter's interests may be deduced from the seminar, "Interfaces of Medical Devices, Electronics, Photonics and Intelligent Textiles organised by the Medical Devices, EPPIC and Techni Tex Partnerships at the University of Leeds on November 11th 2003. PDD Dr Saeed Zahedi Faraday Partnership Triteq Ubisense Eureka says: These developments could do much to ease the problems of the elderly and allow them to spend their last years with dignity in their own home, instead of consigning them to care homes. Many regard these as places where they will be imprisoned for the remainder of their lives until they can be disposed of. Pointers * Smart electronic devices can be devised to remotely monitor hearts, blood sugar, body temperature, brain activity, and even whether somebody has forgotten to do something * Most of the base technology has already been developed for other purposes so costs are very acceptable and times to market could be quite short