Gadgets for grandma keeping our elderly relatives safe
Robots to help with spoon feeding, motion sensors to detect whether an elderly person is well and plug-in devices that send signals when changes in routine are detected.
It may sound like the home of the future, but this kind of technology is live in homes now as elderly people look to live independently for longer.
With an ageing population, many of the technologies designed to aid elderly care have sprung from personal experience, as is the case with entrepreneur Steve Purdham.
His 84-year-old mother inspired him to set up Stoke-based 3rings, a service designed to alert relatives to any changes in an elderly person’s routine.
“About 3.8m people who live alone are over 65,” he says. “They want to live alone but how do you help the elderly maintain their independence and help the families with the challenges of keeping in touch with their parents – especially when we work long hours these days and are often geographically dispersed.
“You’ve also got to bear in mind that a lot of elderly people hate technology.”
The answer for Purdham was 3rings, a plug that is connected to a household appliance regularly used by that person – in many cases the kettle. Every time that appliance is used a signal is sent to a central server, though there is no need for an internet connection as the plug has an inbuilt mobile phone.
The family can then either log on as they wish to check activity, or set up rules that, if broken, will warn them that perhaps all is not well.
“I set up a rule that between 5am and 9am and 4pm and 9pm my mum will make at least one cup of tea, because that’s what she usually does,” Purdham says.
“I’ll then be informed that mum has made a cup of tea so she’s ok, but if the log at 9am said she hadn’t made a cup of tea then I’d know that maybe something was wrong.
“The elderly person doesn’t have to do anything, they just carry on as normal, and that’s the beauty of it.”
Launched in May 2015, sales have grown steadily and the plug was sold in selected Tesco stores last Christmas – with buyers then taking on a monthly fee that covers alerts for up to 10 relatives.
For Purdham and the 3rings team the plug is just the beginning – although securing a patent proved difficult – and work is ongoing to develop other technologies aimed at the same market.
“The real power behind 3rings is not the plug, that’s what people are buying today because they understand it,” Purdham says.
“In the next three to four years we will be able to talk to other household devices, for example smoke detectors that can detect motion as well as smoke and thermostats that can detect whether mum’s in a dangerously cold environment.
“You won’t need to put something special into the house because all those things will already be there and you’ll be able to analyse the data to build patterns which will make social care massively different.”
Below: Purdham’s Internet of Things vision
Purdham is among the judges for the prestigious Digital Entrepreneur Awards, hosted by UKFast in partnership with BusinessCloud, in November.
Like Purdham, Stuart Butterfield and his fellow directors created Canary Care, based in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, following their experience of caring for older relatives.
With partners Stuart Sheehy and William Cotton, Butterfield acquired the Canary project from Cambridge-based Critical Data, founded by Christopher Curry who also founded Acorn Computers.
Then a research project with government funding, the new team took it from a prototype to a real product in two years.
The system consists of up to eight sensors placed around a home to detect either door activity or movement, with data wirelessly transmitted to a hub.
This information is then available on a web page that relatives can access and, like 3rings, rules can be set up.
“If you believe that the front door opening between midnight and 6am is out of the ordinary, you can set up a rule that will send you an alert if it happens,” Butterfield says.
“When we first launched we didn’t have the door sensors but the feedback from customers was that this was seen as an essential part of the system, so we were able to modify this quite quickly.
“We hear stories where we’ve made a difference all the time, and I can’t tell you how gratifying that is.”
Another aspect of the system, which is available to purchase or rent with an additional monthly fee, is a card reader aimed at care providers or regular visitors, who can swipe a card when they arrive at and leave the home as a way of recording their presence.
For Canary, the next step in developing the product will be looking at how to use the data that is collected by the sensors.
“We’ll be focusing on the software and the analytics in the next year, looking at how we can extract meaning from the data and use that to spot a problem before it happens,” Butterfield says.
“It could be simple things like a chart that tracks the number of movements in a day over the last few months, which could show whether mobility is decreasing; if the sensors show a person going to the toilet more often, that could signal a urinary tract infection.
“We don’t know anything about the person being cared for, but we can provide the information to the family to give them a level of understanding.”
While passive monitoring is key for 3rings and Canary, the University of Manchester is working with digital health company Mira Rehab on using gamification to ensure elderly people can living independently for longer.
Users need a laptop and a Kinect sensor to access the ‘exergames’, which include an auction game where they use ‘sit-to-stand’ exercises to bid on antiques.
Dr Emma Stanmore, a nursing lecturer who works with Mira on research and development (R&D), says trials so far have led to positive feedback.
“You’re playing a computer game, you become immersed and it takes your mind off doing repetitive rehabilitation exercises,” she says.
“Older people have been involved in developing the games and things like sit-to-stand exercises can prevent falls and allow people to remain independent.”
Her university colleague, Dr Helen Hawley-Hague, is working on a separate project to enable health professionals to use smartphone technology to deliver home rehabilitation exercises to patients.
She says the latest research shows 50 per cent of older people now have a smartphone, which is something that will only increase.
“Across the UK rehab for falls is once a week for six to 12 weeks, but it needs to be two or three times a week and longer term,” she says.
“The exercises could be carried out in group sessions but the healthcare professional does not need to travel, which saves time and means more people can be dealt with.”
Worn on the lower back, the smartphone would also double up as a falls alarm, which would send a text to a nominated person if the wearer falls over.
This and the exercise programme will be trialled from September next year in Manchester.
“I’m really interested in the use of smartphones rather than bespoke technology that gets out of date very quickly and, for the future older generation, a smartphone is something they carry around with them,” Hawley-Hague says.
“A lot of the existing alert systems, such as the pendant alarms, can’t be used out of the home, which means older people can be afraid of going into the garden, but a smartphone will work anywhere.
“It could be that in the future we look at the use of sensors in pyjamas that can link with the phone, for when people get up in the night and don’t necessarily pick up their smartphone.”
While some of the technologies cover physical health, there are others aimed at aiding communication between the elderly and their families.
Entrepreneur Tomas Posker, chief executive of Oscar Senior, set up his business to enable him to keep in touch with his grandmother when he went on a business development programme at Silicon Valley.
“She was so excited because she had lived through communism and had never been abroad, so she wanted to experience it with me,” Posker, from the Czech Republic, says.
He bought her a computer and set her up with Skype, but when she tried to make the first call it wouldn’t connect.
Posker searched for different software that could connect him and his grandmother and when he failed to find something suitable, decided to come up with his own.
Oscar Senior was born, a free app allowing elderly relatives to stay closer to their families via video and text messaging, and photo-sharing, with easy-to-follow links to news, weather and games.
The business, launched two years ago, spent the first 12 months working with elderly people and their families, and Posker says they were surprised by how much of the internet the senior users wanted to access.
Going live in October 2014, the app is now translated into seven languages and sees the most usage in the UK, Sweden, Norway and Finland, as well as the US, Germany and Austria.
An upgraded version was released in December 2015.
Along with its simplicity, its selling point to the older generation is that family members can access the app remotely, meaning they can assist the senior user with any issues as and when they arise.
It also provides a safe environment to protect older people from phishing and spam.
“We believe there’s a huge potential for these people,” Posker says, adding that future developments include access to Wikipedia and brain games.
“It’s no secret that the population is ageing and the number of people caring for their seniors is increasing.
“We don’t want to stop personal meetings but we want to give them technology that helps them.”