Imagine a home where hidden sensors in the drugs cabinet can update prescriptions, the radiator will switch itself on when the weather turns chilly, and a bracelet can call the ambulance if an elderly person’s pacemaker plays up.
This is the internet of things– a menacingly vague term to many elderly people. But the rapidly growing industry could prove life changing as connectivity of devices and services becomes not only ubiquitous, but enjoyable.
Take Jibo, a tabletop device that will be marketed as a family robot, a companion as loyal and attentive as a dog and as useful as a smartphone. Cynthia Breazeal, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is crowdfunding the development of Jibo as a device to care for the elderly.
Jibo can arrange video calls with family or enable children to remind their parents to take medicine, as well as take funny pictures and read stories. “We call it the world’s first family robot as it is really about engagement with people; more like a helpful partner, rather than being a tool,” she said.
A modern home will contain several hundred “smart” objects by 2022, according to Gartner, the research group, while Cisco estimates the market will be worth $19tn as more than 50bn internet-connected gadgets come into operation in the next six years.
But, given such complex technology, the end result for the elderly could be a much simpler and more comfortable life.
Ms Breazeal believes the key to helping older people age in their homes is both “high tech” and “high touch” to overcome senior resistance to complicated computing.
“Loneliness is one of the biggest problems of ageing and even though a little robot is not going to replace people, many say if I just had a little helper with a smile on its face to inform me of daily events, arrange a car ride to make sure I get out in the community to help connect with friends, that would be huge,” she added.
Ken Smith, director of the mobility division at the Stanford Center on Longevity, said there was “huge potential” to help older people with internet-connected devices. But he said the key for companies was to try to persuade the elderly that the devices have something to offer.
“The business model is still not quite unlocked. Often times the technologist is younger and doesn’t see the need to give the older individual something,” he said.
Lively, a US-based company, sticks sensors on everything from medications to food and drink to learn an older person’s routine, sending alerts at any abnormalities to an app on the carer or child’s phone.
To entice the elderly to use the potentially intrusive system, it created the “LivelyGram”, a printed book sent in the mail every month containing photos and messages from friends and family.
Iggy Fanlo, Lively’s co-founder and chief executive, said the company sees itself as having two target markets: the user and the chooser, who is often the adult child and typically the eldest daughter. He said he is targeting the 7m to 8m users of emergency buttons for when the elderly fall, but offering a much more comprehensive system.
As the cost of care rises, Lively is being used by some care companies as a “last mile solution”, charging $40-$45 a week to wrap services and monitoring around the system, on top of the $25 a month Lively costs, he said.
“It is about a tenth of the price of full home care, “ Mr Fanlo said. “Care providers can look after many many more families than they did before by using technology. It is a smart and intelligent way to use human resources.”
Start ups are not the only companies interested in selling internet-connected devices to help care for the elderly. While Mr Fanlo thinks the market will have to grow to $10bn-$15bn to peak the interest of Google or Apple, AT&T, the US telecoms company, is already selling its technology to seniors.
Glenn Lurie, president of emerging enterprises at AT&T, said its Digital Life project including an alarm system, door locks and cameras was designed to be simple enough to be used by the less technologically capable.
The future, he thinks, is in connecting the digital home to wearable devices monitoring the elderly’s vital signs.
“Wearable sensors on the body and around the home can tell us what is happening in the house,” he said. “By using big data and looking at the things you can expect to happen, you can give the caregiver an understanding that all is good with mum and dad.”