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Who's going to look after the computers that look after our parents?

Welcome to the internet of old things people....

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Old age ain't no place for sissies

The effect was startling as we “walked” through the simulation. The blurred vision piped into the headsets provided a terrible indicator what it might be like to deal with fading senses. At least until we realised the goggles are not actually firing on all cylinders. A change of headset and we were able to crisply navigate the virtual apartment taking into account the cat and kitten doors - to adapt to the need to shift gurneys or wheelchairs around - and the extra room, for carers to use if necessary. The rooms look clean and uncluttered. It’s hard to imagine the bric-a-brac of a whole well-lived life crammed in.

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An hour later, we’re in the apartments themselves at the Great Northern Haven development. They feel eerily familiar. Not because we’d just walked through a virtual simulacrum, but because at first glance every bit of furniture appears to have been procured from Ikea. As said above, there are the cat and kitten doors.

Where possible, walls are very lightweight, hollow with no utilities, to allow their removal for the installation of heftier furniture. Otherwise, walls are reinforced to provide anchor points for hoists and hand rails in the future. The hob and other kitchen units look unusually low. It turns out they’re adjustable, so that they can be lowered to be accessible to a wheelchair-bound resident.

An even closer look starts to reveal some of the instrumentation. There are the motion detectors that are a standard part of a home security system these days, but they’re as much to track the resident as to detect intruders. A paper-thin pressure pad under the mattress monitors breathing and heart rate, as well as altering the system that the resident has risen in the night for a pee.

The bedroom lights, reacting to this, will fire up to half their brightness, while the bathroom light will switch on to full. If the resident doesn’t return to bed within a set time, and is not detected elsewhere in the apartment, carers will be alerted.

Sensors, data streams, comms and automation. These are exactly the sort of responses you’d expect tech researchers and vendors to come up with.

But is it along the right lines? While we can predict the scale of the problem, so far there’s been little actual work into researching policies and evolving strategies to cope with an ageing population.

Before joining FOTE, Poole worked in international development, an area which has had massive resources poured into it for decades. “There’s great policy [in international development], great research, great evidence of the impact of money spent, and long term research of the ongoing benefit,” he tells us. “There’s obviously a huge amount to do but the policies are kind of in place to move that in the right direction.

“If you looked at elderly care in the UK, you couldn’t say the same,” the IBM dev observes.

Internet of Older People

The sensors being rained down on oldies by the likes of Fujitsu in Dundalk and IBM in Bolzano will undoubtedly throw up shedloads of data. But will it be of any use?

At the Dundalk Institute for Technology, what initially looks like blandly abstract art work to match the Ikea-supplied interior turns out to be histograms showing residents' movements. Increasing numbers of blank spots could be a precursor of depression, or other physical illnesses, as could increased restlessness at night.

This data is collected in parallel to information from wellness apps on iPads or iPhones or PCs. Residents are regularly questioned on a variety of health issues. Some emerging problems might be spotted in close to real-time, while in other cases analysis after the fact might flag up more serious ailments. In one instance, changes in pattern were noticed for a resident, prompting a checkup which resulted in a cancer diagnosis.

The model will be familiar to anyone forced to ingest the last few years of hype over the so-called "Internet of Things" – sensors and other embedded devices throwing off reams of data, to trigger interventions or provide the raw big data for adaptive algorithms to chomp their way through. The difference is that instead of the info being sucked out of data centre, building facilities, science environments, it’s us (or our parents) who are in this feedback loop.

But lab-based data only gets us so far - and the Dundalk apartments are, in effect, a lab, an ideal of the sort of environment our older citizens can live in.

Which is tricky, as there seems to be a consensus that keeping older people out of institutions and in the community, ideally in their existing homes, is generally accepted to be a good thing. But while the flats in Dundalk have been constructed from the ground up with the changing needs of oldsters in mind, over one-fifth of UK housing stock was built before 1919, with another 17.9 per cent built between the wars according to a 2008 ONS survey, and just 12 per cent has been built since 1990. Or put another way: nearly half the housing in the UK is old enough to draw an old age pension itself.

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