How can new technologies help shape the future of assisted living?

On Wednesday 20th June, as a part of Digital Leaders Week, I was invited by Wigan Council to attend a tour of Ancliffe Bungalow an empty residential care unit equipped with a series of specialised and commercially available tech to enable disabled and elderly people to live more independent lives.

The bungalow, on the surface, appears to be a pretty normal assisted-living bungalow — you see the usual handrails and emergency call devices that you’d expect to find in a nursing home, sheltered accommodation or the home of someone that requires assistance for independent living. But dig deeper and you will find a host of assistive technologies that demonstrate a new phase in assisted living. Room by room, our guide pointed out discreet devices —  from Amazon Alexa opening the blinds and turning off the lights, to nightlights in the toilet, to glasses that act as eyes for those with a severe visual impairment. Every device has its own story; the People Powered Innovation team From Wigan Council can trace back the use of each technology to a distinct problem that has been faced by a client of theirs. They know this technology can help other people as they are already testing, iterating and implementing on the ground, and seeing the results.

One piece of tech the team has found to be particularly effective is the smart plug by 3rings. This technology runs off a series of rules dictated by the caregiver to notify them to a deviation from their loved one’s usual routine. These deviations are detected through the activity of the smart plug:

“Dad normally has a cup of tea as soon as he wakes up, but if it’s an hour past the time he normally has his cuppa and the kettle’s smart plug hasn’t detected any activity, then it sends an alert to me and my brother, then one of us can pop round and check on him. If he’s had a fall, we can get him the help he needs rather than risking him trying to get up himself or lying there until his scheduled carers come in later on.”

While this monitoring may seem like an invasion of privacy, it’s important to remember that the smart plugs are monitoring the activity of the devices connected to them; they’re NOT surveilling the activity of the person using the devices.The smart plugs simply show a power socket as being “on” or “off”. It will then alert the caregiver to a potential situation according to the rules defined by the caregiver. These rules may help the caregiver account for the activity of the care-receiver, but they don’t directly define or observe that activity. For example:

  1. IF 3rings active 3+ times in 60 Minutes THEN alert daughter
  2. IF 3rings not active between 7am and 10am THEN alert son
  3. IF 3rings active 2+ times between 10pm and 7am THEN alert nurse

These rules don’t mean anything if you don’t know the context. But for caregivers who do know the context, a deviation in routine may indicate a serious problem such as a fall or an illness. Let’s look again at those examples…

IF 3rings active 3+ times in 60 Minutes THEN alert daughter

If relating to a kettle’s smart plug, this activity could indicate that the care receiver is struggling with their memory since they have boiled the kettle over 3 times in an hour.

IF 3rings not active between 7am and 10am THEN alert son

If relating to a bedside lamp, this could indicate that the care receiver hasn’t got out of bed by 10 am — they may be unwell.

IF 3rings active 2+ times between 10pm and 7am THEN alert nurse

If relating to a bathroom light, this may indicate the care receiver has visited the toilet multiple times in the night — a warning sign of a UTI.

In all of these examples, passive monitoring provides data which is then contextualised by caregivers on the ground. The people who need to know what those indicators mean are the ones receiving the data and working from it.

Homes like Ancliffe Bungalow are a great example of how the IOT is enabling assisted living to be more responsive and data-driven. At the same time, the technology is discreet enough to maintain a level of personal space and privacy. Getting the right information to the right people at the right time can provide the peace of mind and security needed for individuals requiring assisted living care, and their loved ones. This means care-receivers are able to live more independently while also receiving better support.