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Smart home technology for aging in place

Aging in place is about helping the elderly stay in their own homes as long as possible, before they potentially have to move to a care home. The connectivity that network operators provide inside and outside the home is a critical enabler of aging in place, with the potential to improve the lives of millions of people around the world.

Moving to a care home obviously has a strong emotional impact, both on the individuals concerned and their families. However, there is also a financial consideration: nursing homes are more costly than the home environment, so both families and healthcare providers may be very interested in the idea of aging in place.

To enable aging in place, we first need to ensure that the person concerned lives in a safe, secure and comfortable home. Second, being able to monitor the wellbeing of the stay at home senior is an important requirement. Thirdly, any possible savings on the energy bill is often an additional benefit for the elderly.

But we don’t want to fall into the trap of over-monitoring: individual privacy must always be considered. A balance needs to be found to ensure the right environment without being too intrusive. In addition, we want to be careful of perception. This is aging in place, not “eldercare”; that’s an important distinction for independent elderly people.

Detecting and protecting

The first challenge is defining the right set of sensors that protect, monitor and provide assisted living. To make the most of the sensors, some “intelligence” needs to be added, whereby one can combine sensors into “if this, then that” scenarios. This requires a “smart home” where a central gateway controls all the sensors and provides the added intelligence. Let’s have a look at some specific examples.

Suppose we want to make the home safer. Ovens, coffee machines, microwaves and other household appliances can pose a danger if left on and unattended. Think of food left in the oven for too long; a simple smoke detector could detect burning and switch off the oven by triggering the smart plug to which the oven is connected, thus avoiding a fire. In addition, an email or text message can be sent to family or a caretaker, who can then contact the stay at home senior. Similarly, water sensors can be used in the bathroom, or near the washing machine, to avoid calamities.

We can also make the home more secure for the elderly. A combination of window and door sensors, motion sensors, and even glass breakage detectors can be used to detect any potential unauthorized access to the home. Through if/then scenarios, appropriate measures can be taken automatically, such as sounding an alarm, contacting family, or alerting a security monitoring company.

The same motion sensors can be used to save energy. For example, if no activity is detected, all the lights can be turned off and the thermostat lowered by 3 or 4 degrees. Motion sensors can also be used to automatically switch on the lights in a room when someone enters and to switch the lights off again when they leave the room. This would not only save energy, but would also make the home safer as the stay at home senior would not have to search for a light switch. This is especially interesting in the bedroom, for example where the light is switched on as soon as someone makes a movement to get out of bed.

Another simple scenario can be used to validate if the elderly person has breakfast, using a motion sensor in the living room (proving that they left the bedroom or bathroom), and a door sensor on the fridge (proving they at least opened the fridge, so it is likely they had something to eat). This scenario can be set to certain times of the day and, if necessary, family or caretakers can be warned if a specified scenario is met (or not).

Health can be monitored with common fitness and medical trackers. Some examples are the Withings Steel HR, which measures heartrate, and the medically approved Withings Blood Pressure Monitor. If these devices detect any anomaly, a doctor, nurse or family member can be warned immediately. Alternatively, a medical professional can collect the data for follow up, or it can be captured and combined with information from activity sensors to provide predictive medical information.

This approach can also apply to those who are in recovery. If patients were able to leave hospital earlier for further recovery at home, they may recover faster in a familiar environment. And there would again be a financial benefit, since a hospital stay costs more than convalescing at home. Health insurers and healthcare providers could benefit significantly and may consider cross-funding this initiative.

The right connectivity

For these types of services, the smart home gateway is critical. It becomes the central hub that controls all the devices and sensors, enables if/then scenarios, and triggers appropriate actions. It must support the most important protocols that are used to control the devices, namely Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave and Bluetooth. Examples of such gateways are the Nokia Smart Home Gateways G-240WZ-A and the A-240Z-A. The G-240WZ-A can be used in a fiber-to-the-home deployment and can be connected directly to the fiber. Alternatively, the A-240Z-A has a gigabit Ethernet uplink and is, therefore, technology agnostic. It can be connected to any modem; DSL, cable or LTE, for example. Both act as a residential gateway, bringing high bandwidth into the home with gigabit Ethernet ports and dual-band, concurrent Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11b/g/n and IEEE 802.11ac).

These smart home gateways support both simple and more complex scenarios to ensure all conditions can be monitored in the right circumstances. More importantly, the scenarios are executed in the gateway itself; you don’t want an incident to go unchecked just because the broadband connection is not working.

Simplicity is king: adding new devices and creating new scenarios are made very simple, with visual click and drag functionality. Gateways with predefined scenarios for common situations ensure services are up and running immediately. And in case an end-user, especially an elderly person, has a problem with one of their devices, it is important to provide the right assistance. So, the ability to manage the devices behind the gateway is very important. But this is not a given for all smart home gateways. The Nokia Smart Home solution includes Nokia’s Internet of Things-focused IMPACT platform to manage both the devices behind the gateway and the gateway itself (e.g. automatically updating the firmware when needed). This allows an operator’s helpdesk to validate the parameters of a smart device, like the battery level, or the status of the device. In addition, data extracted from the gateways can be stored in the cloud; this includes video streaming, notification history and power consumption history.

Caring opportunities

Taking all these requirements for the smart home gateway into consideration, it becomes clear that a communications service prover or network operator is in an excellent position to provide these devices. You are typically already providing a residential broadband gateway into the home (DSL, cable or fiber modem); you now have a great opportunity to combine this gateway with smart home capabilities to reduce the number of devices in the home. In addition, you can manage the gateways through software lifecycle management and, with the Nokia Smart Home gateway, can even manage the devices behind the gateway, to make the smart home experience as seamless as possible for the stay at home senior and those providing assistance.

While service providers can deliver best in class smart home platforms, you may want to cooperate with selected partners to maximize the success of smart home services, especially one as critical, and sensitive, as aging in place. By partnering with a healthcare provider or insurer, you can boost credibility, thought leadership and also enable the introduction of value add services like 24/7 monitoring.

Similar partnerships exist in home security or home insurance, creating a win-win-win situation. With insurance, for example, the smart home solution creates a safer home, minimizing the chances of intrusions or calamities. The insurance company will have fewer claims to pay out, the end-customer, therefore, typically receives a reduction in home insurance fees and, finally, the operator is able to sell more smart home services.

Populations are aging and homecare is an increasingly desirable outcome for independent seniors and their families. Service providers have an opportunity to support this demand through new services and partnerships. As the heart of an aging in place offer, the Nokia Smart Home solution enables all these eldercare use cases. But then again: who’s old?

Laszlo Gyalog

About Laszlo Gyalog

Within Nokia’s Fixed Networks Division, Laszlo leads the Broadband Devices marketing, focusing on how to extend a broadband offer into the home with meshed Wi-Fi, and how to fully optimize the Wi-Fi performance with advanced analytics. Outside business hours, Laszlo enjoys toying around with anything technology related (he is an engineer after all), photography and going for long walks with his wife and their dog.

Tweet me @Laszlo_G

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