People are living much longer into old age, and the need for care and medical assistance for elderly populations is growing rapidly. Ideally, elderly people should be able to live happily and independently at home, but medical complications and conditions such as depression and dementia can make this extremely difficult.
'Without support, assistance and cognitive stimulation, sufferers from elderly dementia and depression can deteriorate rapidly; in these circumstances their carers, for instance their spouses or children, face a more demanding task; the elderly and their carers both face an increased risk of social exclusion,' explains Professor Atta Badii of the University of Reading, UK.
To address these challenges, European researchers are developing intelligent home-help systems and robot assistants which support elderly people to live well and look after themselves. Happier, healthier and more active elderly populations can ease the burden of care on family, friends and health authorities.
A robot companion
Prof. Badii, is the coordinator of the FP7 project, 'Integrated Cognitive Assistive and Domotic Companion Robotic Systems for Ability & Security' ( CompanionAble), which has created a robotic companion called 'Hector'. Hector can move around a house on its own and respond to commands such as 'follow me' or 'go to the kitchen'. He can help users socialise and provide cognitive stimulation in their daily lives. Users interact with Hector directly through voice commands and a large touch screen.
Hector functions autonomously, or as part of a larger-scale intelligent-home system designed to support independent living for elderly people. By controlling smart systems around the house, Hector is able to open and close curtains and windows, turn lights on and off, or regulate the central heating.
Here, Hector bridges the gap between new smart environments that are sometimes difficult to use and elderly people who may not be experienced or able to interact with such systems with ease. As a companion, Hector acts as an intermediary; he makes these systems accessible through more natural interactions.
'Hector can, for example, help his human companion get ready to leave the house,' says Prof. Badii. 'He approaches his owner and reminds him not to forget to take certain items such as a purse. He can also detect any open windows or doors, or appliances that have been left on, and remind his human companion to deal with these issues before he leaves the house.'
The multi-talented Hector also helps his companion to socialise through an easy-to-use video-telephone interface; he can automatically connect the user to family, professional carers or trusted associates. If he or other smart systems detect abnormal or alarming situations, for example if the user has a fall, Hector will dial up a 'Remote response centre' which will then handle the emergency.
Smart home integration for enhanced care
Hector's integration into smart home systems and remote care and control centres can be adapted to new environments relatively easily, Prof. Badii stresses. 'We can extend Hector's capabilities in a modular fashion, making him a "plug-and-perform" companion robot; he can be effective in a large variety of home settings to support assisted independent living.'
The care support offered by CompanionAble includes monitoring vital physiological signs and more subtle factors such as moods, as well as diary management, video telephony and reminders to ensure users take the right medicine on time.
The project has installed CompanionAble systems in a number of demonstration homes, which are used to test and improve the wide spectrum of functionalities developed by the project partners through long-term studies with real elderly care recipients. The high reliability and low maintenance costs that these studies have demonstrated open the way for the commercialisation of the smart technologies developed by the CompanionAble project.
The project team comprises 19 specialist partners who are currently presenting the results of the project, and the elegant integration of Hector with smart home facilities, at a wide range of dedicated sites and public events. Final trials and demonstrations are underway in Belgium, Spain, France and the Netherlands.
The four-year CompanionAble integrated project received EUR 7.8 million (of a total of EUR 10.72 million project budget) in research funding under the EU Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) 'Information and communication technologies' (ICT) theme.
Information Source: Professor Atta Badii, Intelligent Systems Research Laboratory, University of Reading, Reading, UK