The ‘internet of everything’ is coming rapidly. Soon it will begin to affect how you manage your work and care role and how community organisations such as aged care providers, disability support organisations and healthcare providers deliver their services.


Whether it is a smartphone app, a tablet, laptop, or desktop computer, assistive technologies using either the internet or mobile phone towers are set to change how we manage our dual work and care roles and how organisations care for our loved ones.

We are talking about things like a device that monitors you loved ones blood pressure and alerts you while you at the workplace; or a wearable device that tells you they have had a fall and need assistance. We are talking about them turning on their computer tablet and having a direct TV channel to you in the office or to their care provider; or even a robot that assists a support person with lifting.

All of these ideas are in current research and development … and probably thousands more are coming.

Leading Aged Services Australia (LASA) Fusion magazine recently ran a very interesting feature on the future of assistive technologies.

The article was contributed by Clevertar, a spin-out company of Flinders University in South Australia. Founded in 2012 it has developed innovative software from the Centre for Knowledge and Interaction Technologies, focusing on care and assistive technology solutions.

While the article primarily focused on the needs of older people, it was also equally applicable to people with disability of all ages.

And, as such, it is of high relevance to working carers and those who support carers. The information is also of direct interest to employers and service providers in the aged care and disability sectors, as well as those in education and training settings.

What the article made clear is that most new assistive technologies are being developed because entrepreneurs see a specific market need and then develop an application or software to fill that need.

Although this is a small market niche at present, it is growing exponentially and one can only imagine the vast array of assistive technologies that may be available within the next five-to-ten years.

The article pointed out that aged care is only just beginning to explore internet-based technologies for its consumer facing services.

“So far, aged care technology has been largely focused on the ‘back office’ for messaging and business administration, but the need to stretch the health dollar with assistive technologies for efficiency gains is obvious. The previous federal government awarded $20.6m for several pilot projects to take advantage of its NBN infrastructure, and recipients included CSIRO to investigate home monitoring for chronic disease for older people; Flinders University to assess telehealth at home for rehabilitation, palliative care and dementia; as well as Feros Care, Leading Age Services Australia, The Royal District Nursing Services, Uniquest, and Hunter New England Local Health District. It will be interesting to see the results of these studies in terms of reduced rate of hospitalisation and admission to residential care.”

So what are some of the new technologies on the horizon? Here is a summary of what Fusion magazine presented:

Wearables

Wearable technologies combine readily available hardware and software to create new devices for data collection based on the activities of the wearer. We all know about a watch that can track your sleep, but how about a bracelet that presses your wrist when your remote partner presses on theirs? Or an ear bud that detects your mood so that it plays the right music? What about a wearable sensor for frail older people that could detect falls and then notify a third party?

The technology community is taking wearables extremely seriously. Apple wants wearable technologies to be integrated with iPad and iPhone and its next operating system version, iOS 8, will include a feature called Healthbook to report on data collected, while Google continues to experiment with Glasses that can act like a hands-free personal assistant. Wearables connected to the internet could provide powerful monitoring data for the user and others who want to track progress and be alerted to potential concerns.

Telehealth

Telehealth is about transmitting health information over distances, including images, data and voice, although for most, telehealth is about videoconferencing. This has the obvious potential to reduce on-site visits and therefore increase level of care at lower cost, yet it has not been widely adopted. A lack of infrastructure is probably the culprit here, with the freebie Skype rarely being up to the task. But where the connection is stable, pilot trials have indicated that consumers do like videoconferencing with a healthcare practitioner as long as this is for ‘additional’ appointments, not a replacement for face-to-face meetings. As a result, several proprietary services have entered the market, supported by the promise of high speed broadband to most Australians.

Meanwhile, other internet-enabled devices are currently being piloted for remote monitoring of health conditions, including scales for weight monitoring and cuffs for blood pressure etc. Similar to wearables, these devices could alert others to issues by providing remote monitoring and tracking over time.

Smart house 

Smart house technology and ‘the internet of everything’ are very hot in places like Silicon Valley, USA. Earlier this year, Google acquired Nest Labs – a company that makes an app-controlled thermostat and smoke alarm – for $3.2 billion. Presumably Google wants to predict your desired temperature like it predicts your search terms. Of course, this means that your temperature data wouldn’t stay in your house. It would be transmitted to Google, and combined with other personal information, help you manage your life better (and possibly that of others if there was enough population information collected.) The company is great at providing free services – and this one could be a boon for older people to prevent the dangers of cold and heat. Add in motion detectors and microphones (to hear if the tap is left on) and a trusted partner will get a good idea about what is going on in the house. A sensor-controlled house, connected to the internet offers many opportunities to support independence – although it also poses many questions about privacy that are yet to be answered.

Apps

There are millions of apps available for smart mobile devices, and many seem trivial, or worse, addictive.  However the beauty of apps is that they use readily available devices to do their job – in hardware that happens to be ideal for older people. A number of pilot projects have found that tablets work well for computer novices and people with dexterity issues because of their simple touch-based interface and easy portability. As well, game apps are great for older people.  They are entertaining and engaging. There have been a large number of research studies on how games can improve cognitive abilities and emotional health in elderly people. Game apps even enable social connection where it didn’t exist before. For example, a granddaughter could connect with her grandfather through an ongoing game of scrabble (with a little chat on the side). This would be less intrusive than say a phone call every day, and more fun.

Fortunately for consumers, apps will continue to become more focused and functional as Apple, Android and Microsoft devices become cheaper and more powerful.