RFID and tracking systems - the future of old age?

Gadgets are replacing the support of an extended family for Europe's burgeoning elderly population
Written by Jo Best, Contributor

Whether they like it or not, older people will soon find themselves the focus of an array of gadgets and computer monitoring systems as technology is increasingly used to provide healthcare services.

People are living longer — over the next 50 years the number of people over 65 in the UK will rise from 9.3 million to 16.8 million. But at the same time they are less likely to have the support of an extended family, which means increased pressure on public services.

As Agata Opalach, a researcher at Accenture's Technology Labs, explains: "The population is ageing. By 2020 there will be twice as many people over 65 as there are today. We will have more elderly people and fewer people to take care of them so we are heading for a crisis in elderly care."

Accenture's facilities in Sophia Antipolis, France, provide a test bed for a number of technologies that could be used to help frail older people stay in their homes for longer — which is cheaper than hospital and also what most people prefer.

Opalach said: "This demographic change is going to have an impact. Technology can help people stay independent for as long as possible."

For example, the lab is testing the use of cameras which track the movement of a person around their home. With falls being one of the leading causes of injury for the elderly, the idea is that the system will be able to spot an accident and if necessary call for assistance.

The system can also build up a measure of the levels of activity of the person it is monitoring — whether they are moving around enough, for example. Or if the system noticed that the person wasn't eating or drinking, it could warn them — and their family or doctor.

Use of the camera system is less intrusive than emergency pendants which some elderly people already carry, the company argues.

Another trial has the "connective table" which uses camera sensors and video projectors to create interaction with family members or care givers. For example, the table can be used to share a board game, by transmitting an image of the board to someone elsewhere, or could be used to send an image of a document that the elderly person wants to discuss with their children.

Other technologies include an RFID-equipped online medicine cabinet, which can warn its users if they have picked out the wrong medication. Using a digital camera and facial-recognition software, it can also provide information and advice to the different users of the cabinet.

In the UK the government is aware of the looming challenge of elderly care and has already made £80m available over the next two years for telecare services, aimed at keeping people out of hospital by providing care in the home.

And a number of telemedicine trials are already up and running — for example, a pilot scheme run by Medway Council and Medway NHS and Teaching Primary Care Trust has found that by providing accurate monitoring of a patient's long-term conditions, hospital admissions can be reduced dramatically.

The trial, with 31 patients, saved 133 hospital days by allowing patients to monitor their own temperature, pulse, heart and breathing rates using Tunstall telemedicine monitors.

Richard Pellant, operational buildings manager at Medway Council said in a statement: "In one specific instance, the telemedicine monitor was used to collect data from a patient with cardiac problems which were used by a local hospital consultant to organise a complete hip replacement procedure without the need for a lengthy pre-operative assessment — saving NHS resources as well as delivering a more flexible model of care."

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