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How smart technologies can alleviate our social care crisis

Can the Internet of Things help older people live longer in their own homes?

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

When it comes to new technology, few concepts seem to get us quite as excited as the Internet of Things. The idea is simple: expanding internet connectivity to everyday items, from thermostats to fridges, thereby allowing them to communicate with our phones, computers and other devices. And it’s quickly taken off.

Over the past decade the Internet of Things (or IoT as it is more commonly known) has moved from vision to reality. Head to any department store and you’ll spot everything from home fitness systems that sync your entire exercise routine to security devices which issue smartphone updates. Soon appliances will also be able to work in tandem with smart meters. It is anticipated that, before long, appliances will be able to use smart meter data to time their electricity usage for when supply from renewables is at its highest.

But what about the social applications of IoT? One area that’s garnered particular attention from developers and policymakers is how it might help meet the needs of an ageing population, from helping the elderly live independently for longer to improving the provision of residential care.

It’s not hard to see why the idea has caught on. Recent projections show that in 50 years’ time, there are likely to be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 or over living in the UK, adding significantly to the existing pressure on health spending, social care and pensions. The issue has fast become one of the thorniest in British politics — and it’s a problem shared across many other developed economies.

No one is arguing that IoT can solve all these problems, but it could alleviate them. When you look at IoT devices already available, it’s not hard to imagine how they might be of benefit to senior citizens. Take basic functionalities like automation and voice-enabled interfaces, both of which give older people more control over their environment, while also taking care of repetitive tasks. IoT-enabled heating systems, for example, can be switched on or off with simple voice commands, alleviating the need to get out of bed at night to change the temperature. The system will also monitor changes in the weather and adjust its settings accordingly. Meanwhile, smart doorbells can learn to recognise regular visitors and let them in accordingly, as well as providing relatives with data on who is visiting.

And what is the role of smart meters in this? A report from the UCL Energy Institute highlighted a number of smart meter characteristics that could prove particularly beneficial to supporting the health applications of IoT. These include their near-ubiquity (by 2020), low cost, versatility and provision of historical data. Meanwhile, researchers at Liverpool John Moores University and Mersey Care NHS Trust are currently carrying out a trial on how smart meters can help people affected by dementia, reducing their need to go into care homes.

Smart technologies, including smart meters, are also playing a role in maintaining the health and wellbeing of the elderly. With the consent of the user, smart meters can help relatives spot changes in behaviour that may be cause for concern. Homes can be fitted with motion sensors, which monitor activity and issue alerts to relatives if no movement is detected.

Meanwhile, wearable technologies can track health. Care staff could receive composite updates on blood pressure, body temperature and respiratory rate, while specialist devices have been developed to track conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. These kinds of technologies have already been trialled in care homes, both in the UK and elsewhere. The aim is to give residents more independence and control, while also giving support staff a betater picture of their health and wellbeing.

The EU is keenly aware of the potential benefits that IoT could bring to the care system — both in improving the quality of care and reducing its costs — and has recently announced its intention to invest €500 million in IoT research.

But getting it right won’t be easy. If older people are to make use of IoT, then the technology — and the devices that control it — must be easy for them to use. This means simple menus and interfaces, but also ensuring buttons and displays aren’t difficult for arthritic fingers or ageing eyes. Devices will need to be thoroughly tested by elderly users, rather than tweaked from existing prototypes. Another priority will be to ensure that all data used by IoT devices is secure and it will be incumbent on manufacturers to show that their devices are suitable to be used in the social care sector. For example, smart meters are fully encrypted and do not store any personal data. The technology itself was developed with the help of the National Security centre, part of GCHQ and designed with security at its heart.

But perhaps the biggest barrier to incorporating the IoT into social care remains an emotional one. For many of us the thought of using robotics and automation within social care feels alien and dehumanising. We worry that giving internet devices control over our relatives’ lives and homes could be a step too far.

Tech advocates argue that rather than depersonalising the system, automation can actually increase the level of face-to-face care provided. The theory being that, as automation takes care of more routine tasks, like checking blood pressure or dispensing medication, carers can use their time to attend to residents personally and meet their individual needs.

They point out that where these technologies have been tried — such as an extensive pilot programme run by Wigan council — they’ve been met with good feedback by residents, families and carers themselves. The same is true of similar trials run within standard patient care, such as an NHS England pilot programme to help dementia patients stay more easily in their own homes.

The digital revolution might not transform our social care sector overnight, but there seems little doubt that it has begun — and smart meters are a big part of it.


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