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From ‘wearables’ to robot caregivers

For the first time in human history people are living longer and technology is evolving and diffusing. The result of these concurrent changes is an intersecting explosion of new ideas, services and products designed to revolutionise the lives of older people and optimise independence, health and wellbeing.

smartWatch

Here are just some of the technologies we can expect to be commonplace in the next decade or two:

SMARTER HOMES

Homes of the future will be probably be much more helpful than the homes we’re used to today. Household appliances will know how to turn themselves on and off, doors, windows and curtains will open at the touch of a button, floors will be cleaned with the efficient hum of a robotic device, taps and toilets will be motion activated, and computer screens will be built in to each room. There’s even suggestion that fridges might be able to trigger a milk delivery when they sense stocks running low and wardrobes might be able to scan your clothes for dirty spots and clean them while they’re hanging in your closet!

Whatever the possibilities, there’s no doubt that smart home technology will make our daily routines easier and assist older people to live independently for longer.

MOTION DETECTING SENSORS

Many older people and their families are already enjoying the peace of mind that comes from motion detecting sensors. These devices can monitor an individual’s movement within their home and send notifications or emergency alerts to family members when regular patterns of behaviour are broken.

Motion detection sensors come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from pendants, to slippers, to small devices that attach to a toothbrush. They are particularly effective in detecting falls and can sense whether someone has not risen from bed in the morning.

Motion detection sensors can also be synced to other devices such as smoke detectors, door and window sensors, phones and a wide range of medical devices such as heart-rate monitors, blood glucose meters and weight scales. Data from each of these devices can then be stored online for individuals and/or their families to monitor.

This technology is invaluable for individuals who live alone and provides families with peace of mind.

TELEMEDICINE CONSULTATIONS

Telemedicine is the provision of medical care via video or telephone link. The technology is not yet mainstream but is expected to grow rapidly because it provides convenient, immediate and quality healthcare solutions for Australians living in remote areas and those with inhibited mobility.

Although it might feel strange to see a doctor who cannot physically examine you, it’s actually the case that many doctors rely more on test results and imaging to make diagnoses these days, rather than physical touch. Of course, for the cases where physical examination is imperative, there will be no replacement for actually visiting a doctor in person.

All you will need to access this technology is a webcam, a computer, good lighting and a reliable internet connection!

ROBOTIC DEVICES

Japanese technology companies are leading the research into robotic care and mobility devices in the hope that robots will be the answer to their aged-care skills and labour shortage.

Some of the most interesting inventions so far have been designed to assist people with impaired mobility. One design assists people with hip and knee problems to walk, and another helps carers move and lift those who are infirm. There are also robots that can do specialized tasks such as shampoo, rinse, comb and dry hair, and robots that function like live-in maids taking care of laundry, cleaning and washing dishes.

Although it may be decades until these products reach the mass market, one robot that is already widely available is ‘Paro’, a cuddly, fluffy toy-like seal. Paro responds to touch and offers therapeutic benefits to elderly users who are in care, similar to the therapeutic benefits of owning a pet.

GAMING

Traditionally targeted at youth, virtual reality gaming products, such as Nintendo Wii, Xbox and PlayStation, are beginning to appeal to a broader market. Occupational therapists and physiotherapists have discovered that gaming is an effective health promotion tool for older people who need to increase their physical activity.

The technology, which plugs directly into a TV screen, allows users to exercise within the comfort of a lounge room. Depending on the game chosen, players can swing at imaginary golf balls, smash tennis balls, dance or go ten-pin bowling. The entertainment factor is high and the health benefits are excellent with improvement seen in the balance skills and functional skills of those who do not get out and about regularly.

WEARABLES

‘Wearables’ refers to any technological device that can be worn on the body and used to perform practical functions.

The most popular wearable devices we see today are in the shape of watches and are used to measure an individual’s vital signs, such as blood pressure and heart rate, as well as track steps and calories burned, and can often also be used to make phone calls, send emails and write text messages. These devices are expected to be an increasingly important part of healthcare in the future and patients who use wearable devices will expect them to alert medical staff when a problem arises.

Wearable devices are also being designed to assist people suffering from low vision and hearing loss. The cochlear implant, which has revolutionised treatment for the hearing impaired internationally, is an example of such as device. Others beginning to emerge are the smart vision glasses, which use a video camera and small computer to transmit clearer images onto a wearer’s glasses screen, and a fingerreader device which is worn like a ring and converts printed text on a page into audio.


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