When it comes to the business of ageing and the technologies that will change how a greying world population is cared for and managed, Ireland has particular opportunities on which it should capitalise.
Speakers at a Business of Ageing conference in Dublin last week noted that several Irish companies were leading developments in related areas. They were also confident that the country could become a focal point for research and pilot schemes involving new technologies in the field of ageing.
When it comes to looking towards a better-managed future for an ageing population,“technology plays a major role, particularly in ambient assisted living”, according to Dublin City University computer science lecturer Brian McGrath, who chaired a session on technology and ageing.
“Ireland has a particularly strong opportunity to do something of global significance . . . It might be the ideal place in the world to develop technologies in this area,” he said.
Peter Nelson, chief executive of Valentia Technologies, said: “The elephant in the room is the demographic time bomb that’s coming at us.”
Some 28 per cent of the population will be over 60 by 2030 and more than 45 per cent by 2050, he noted. This would lead to a shortage of qualified healthcare professionals and healthcare costs rising rapidly and becoming unsustainable.
To continue with our current healthcare model for elderly care, we would have to start building hospitals and care facilities for this older population rapidly, said Nelson.
“But there aren’t enough doctors and nurses to work in these hospitals, even if they were built. The whole solution is to treat them in the community,” he said. “We have to start managing people at home.”
Interestingly, developing countries are deploying technologies and services in a way that developed countries would find difficult to achieve, according to Nelson.
But resources are needed to manage the data onslaught that such services would generate. “We will need command and control centres with a significant back end to deploy resources.”
Using sensors in a variety of applications could transform home care and independent living, argued Gary Carroll of sensor technology company EpiSensor.
Mesh networks of multiple sensors could monitor energy (heating, cooling, lighting), respond to ambient conditions, and monitor occupancy and movement as well as giving automatic meter readings.
These technologies “can be brought together” to give a remote overview of activity within the home, Carroll said, which in turn could enable older people to maintain an independent lifestyle for longer.
As an example of how sensors might work to monitor the safety and activity of an elderly person, he said a sensor could monitor appliances within the home.
“If you can monitor appliances, you pretty much know what’s going on in the home,” he said. For example, if a kettle is turned on in the morning, it indicates the resident is awake and active.
Carroll said Ireland could be a potential test market for such technologies. “If it works in Ireland, it will work anywhere.”
Intel Ireland’s Technology Research for Independent Living (Tril) Centre is doing a few such trials. Tril was set up in 2007 to research technologies to assist the ageing, with one current project at St James’s Hospital involving 600 patients and others enabling older people to test new devices.
Tril’s initial focus has been on fall prevention, cognitive functions and social connection.
“We need new models of care that enable people to live longer in their own homes, with more acute care coming out of centres in the community and in the home,” said Tril academic director Brian Caulfield.
This requires a multidisciplinary approach that goes well beyond having technologists build new devices. “We can’t do it just by having technologies,” he said. “They’ll develop wonderful technologies, but not technologies that are necessarily useful.”
Hence, he said: “If you can think of a discipline, you name it and we’ve got it at Tril.”
Ethnography specialists are particularly helpful. “Our ethnography research unit enables Tril to understand the needs of the older person and allows their voices to be heard.”
In the case of falls, Tril uses sensors to assess gait and predict when individuals are heading towards problems that could result in falls, ideally letting physicians address a problem before a fall occurs.
Sensors are an inexpensive solution compared to the motion-capture technologies used previously, Caulfield said.
In the area of cognitive assessment, Tril is working on simple technologies that analyse how a person is putting words into sentences. Older people can dial in to use a simple phone assessment program, for example.
In social networking, Intel has developed a phone-based device that enables people to make calls, manage contacts, send e-mails and chat with friends in a chat room (called a “tea room” by choice of the older people who helped in its development).
If this is the future of ageing, how close are we to achieving such technology-driven lifestyle and care approaches? “All the building blocks are there, but it is commissioning all these types of services,” said Nelson.
“There are a lot of challenges in deploying these technologies for the first time. How to connect them up, for example? It’s a national dialogue, really. Pilot programmes are needed that will lead to a national implementation.”
All the speakers felt Ireland could contribute, and even lead, in certain areas of this technological transformation of ageing.
EpiSensor’s Carroll said he believed that if Ireland led with a pilot scheme that connected 1,000 homes to a range of these new technologies and services, it could raise our international profile in the area. “It would get Ireland noticed,” he said.
Government-led purchasing of some of the products provided by Irish companies would also be a positive step. Ireland has “unique characteristics” that could make it “a very competitive place” in the area of the business of ageing, Carroll added.
“Ireland is the perfect place to become a test bed for technology,” said Tril’s Caulfield.
Valentia’s Nelson concluded: “I think we have all the right ingredients.”