The Western world is experiencing a rapid growth in the elderly population, which is particularly evident in Europe. This puts a huge strain on our welfare states. One method to ease the situation is to improve the quality of life for older people at home.
In Trento, northern Italy, a group of senior citizens, all well over 70 years old, visit the city's Social Centre for the Elderly to test a hi-tech prototype called 'Alice'. The prototype allows the participants to play a computerised version of the popular Italian card game known as "briscola". A purpose of these trials is to evaluate how well the prototype can be used by elderly people who have had very little or no experience with computers. IT scientists are present to assist in the operation of the system, while social workers observe and study the user reactions.
The trails have been met with positive feedback, with one user stating "I like it. It keeps my brain working... And even though I'm quite old, I'm able to learn a lot". The results highlight the belief that elderly people "fear" new technologies as a misconception. It has been found that introducing new technology in the form of a game leads to a quick understanding of the fun and usefulness these technologies can offer.
Asides from Alice, there are many other prototypes being developed as part of the European research project called Netcarity. The project is developing all kinds of IT tools to improve the quality of life of elderly people.
One of the first steps was to establish focus groups and identify the needs of the elderly. The results of these focus groups set clear aims for the Netcarity project: finding user-friendly and non-intrusive solutions to help elderly people enjoy life while offering a high level of security, care and social integration.
Another prototype is an "intelligent wall" that is connected to sensors and cameras around the home. The computer is programmed to monitor activity and relay alert messages upon the wall to warn of potential accidents (for example, if the user was about to leave the house while the stove was still on). It can also be used to give reminders for appointments.
Researchers have also developed a large touch screen which can be installed anywhere within the home. Using infrared technology, windows of information can be moved and enlarged to accommodate any sight or mobility difficulties. The prototype has the screen integrated into a kitchen table. The user could read the newspaper digitally and enlarge it, if necessary. The screen can display pictures or videos, so the user could, for example, operate the videophone from the kitchen table.
To ease the isolation of those living alone, researchers have created a mobile computer table with a very user-friendly graphics system involving big icons and images. It enables phone calls to be made without dialing any numbers and can also be used for messaging.
About 30 percent of older people suffer at least one fall to the ground a year. This can be particularly dangerous for those living alone. For this reason, researchers are working on a system of 3-D cameras supported by complex algorithms. The system is capable of identifying a dangerous fall and contacting a relative or call-centre to get help.
Like Italy, Spain also has a rapidly aging population. In Alicante, southeastern Spain, trails are being conducted with people in their late 60s or 70s. The trials are for another European research project, which has created a prototype in the form of a games table. It is the result of a cooperation between computers scientists, psychologists and social workers. The project, called ElderGames, is designing new tools to bring new technologies closer to older people and to promote social activity. The games have been designed to be fun while exercising memory and psychomotor skills. Since the table also records data from the players, it can be used as a tool for therapists to help identify memory loss.