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Internet Technology, The Aging Population's Freedom Fighter

Growing old doesn't necessarily have to mean leaving a beloved home. A growing market of technology-related services for senior citizens is helping them to keep their beloved independence.

Elderly-friendly technology? Getting there ...
Elderly-friendly technology? Getting there ...
Elisabeth Dostert

MUNICH — Albina B. is 75 years old and has gotten used to the small, flat, rectangular little plastic box on the dresser. Next to the numerous photographs of her family, it's barely noticeable. Framed photographs of weddings, birthdays and happy children. Albina is happy to have that little plastic box next to them. "It makes me feel secure."

The one on the dresser really is inconspicuous, as is the one attached to the window and a third plastic box in the bathroom. "We had to tell her to not pull the plug when she does the hoovering, though," says her 26-year-old grandson David Martin. The monitoring system wouldn't work without electricity.

They are simultaneously receivers and passive infrared detectors, registering the elderly woman's every movement — not just how and where she's moving but, more importantly if she's not moving. In that case, it would send a message to her daughter Annette Martin's smartphone. Albina, who doesn't want her last name to be published, also typically wears a distress signal device around her wrist, though it's currently on the dresser because she has guests. "I do wear it on occasion, if I don't feel too well," she says.

A growing market

Albina is perfectly well guarded, although her family would never use that term because it sounds too much like total control. They just want to protect her. "As much freedom as possible, as much protection as is necessary," is her daughter Annette's motto. Which is why the monitoring system only registers her movements but doesn't record images. There are no surveillance cameras in her apartment.

Albina's husband died three years ago, and she's been living on her own ever since. He was in need of care for quite a while, which is why the family installed a stairlift for him to reach the apartment on the first floor. Now even Albina uses the lift every once in a while to go downstairs to feed the chickens or to get out of the house and down to the village. At the moment, this is all the help she needs, or rather wants, to ease her daily routine.

She's lucky because her children live within 30 kilometers and are very nurturing. Albina even owns a car, a smart car, "which we bought because my husband could get in and out of it much more easily than with other cars." But she doesn't like to drive long distances anymore.

Germany is ill-prepared

Technology products for senior citizens are a growing market. In 1950, only 10% of the population was over 65. Now it's 20% in Germany and may rise to 30% by 2050, according to the Federal Institute of Population Research. The proportion of the very old — over 80 years old — is five times higher now, at 5%, than it was in 1950. This number is expected to triple by 2050. Every seventh German would be 70 years or older at that stage, and women would represent the majority.

"Germany is ill-prepared to deal with this," says Ursula Lehr, 84, board chair for the Federal Society of Senior Citizen Organizations (BAGSO). Surveys have shown that the majority of people want to live in their own homes for as long as possible. "Many of them won't be able to do so as their houses are of a time when architects were not concerned with the old-age-suitability of their designs," she says.

But times are changing. Construction directors and institutions such as the German Association of Gerontotechnology, the Berlin Institute of Social Research and companies such as the British corporation Tunstall are looking for solutions. Even medium-sized companies such as Martin Elktrotechnik, founded by Albina's daughter Annette and her husband, are looking for solutions. Since 2013, the Berlin College of Technology and Design has offered a masters degree in ambient assisted living (AAL). AAL refers to products and services designed to aid unassisted living. It is technology designed to adapt to a human being's needs.

Good design

There's still is a lot to be done. As BAGSO surveys have shown, the world in which more and more people of old age live is littered with obstacles. Some public buildings still have staircases without handrails or handrails that don't extend the full length of the stairwell. Some older people complain about the size of their prescription tablets, which are difficult to halve because of their reduced motor function.

And most distress signal devices are unsightly. "Why can't there be such a device in the form of an earclip?" asks Lehr. At a recent trade fair, one company offered cutlery with specifically designed grips that looked like corn cobs. "You would have to be very desperate to use such cutlery," argues Lehr. "Even older people like good and universal design" suitable for their age group. Much has improved over the last few years, "but it still leaves definite room for improvement, and a lot is still to be done." Lehr and her association are working on precisely that.

Products consistent with ability

The moniker "senior citizen" is not terribly well embraced by the people it is meant to describe. But at what point does someone become old? "The physical, mental and intellectual condition of an older person is not just dependent on their year of birth," says social psychologist Dieter Frey, professor of psychology and head of the LMU-Centre for Leadership and People Management. "A 75-year-old could have the physical and mental agility of a 40-year-old, a 40-year-old that of a 75-year-old," he argues.

That's why there are products that are not age specific to 70- or 80-year-olds but products that are consistent with the physical and intellectual abilities of the user, no matter what age.

The company Hiro designs elevators that can be installed without architectural intervention, indoors and outdoors. There are carpets with specific sensors that can register movements and falls. There are remote-controlled smartphones, keyboards with extra-large lettering and software such as Lever@Home to train your memory. Tablets enable people to control nearly everything within the household if it has been electronically linked to it. Many of the integral parts of AAL systems are based on information technology.

Expensive care for an aging society

Whenever Thomas Gerke is on vacation, he carries a silver suitcase with him containing a portable distress signal device, an electronic wristband and a smoke alarm. "In an emergency, a friendly employee from the call center will contact me to determine what has happened," Gerke explains.

He works for the British company Tunstall, which not only provides distress signal systems but also telehealthcare systems. With these systems, vital signs such as blood pressure, pulse and blood sugar can be measured and monitored. They even remind their owners to take these measurements or their medication on time. The results can be passed on via landline or pager to a call centen, health insurance company or mobile care service. Research has shown that the number and length of hospital stays and emergency visits can be reduced significantly with the use of telehealthcare systems.

Of course, it's not just a question of looking after patients but also of reducing the costs to health insurance providers in an aging society. So the line between loss and gain of personal freedom appears to be rather thin at times.

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