The call of nature and bath time can be challenging endeavours for older people and the bedridden. A novel 'dry shower' and height-adjustable, fully automated portable hygienic toilet could help give those with restricted mobility more autonomy and dignity.
Older people can have difficulty bathing and going to the toilet, as can others with impaired mobility, such as the handicapped or hospital patients. The latest statistics indicate that one in ten people over 65 have difficulty bathing, over half of whom receive help from a carer or relative.
Normally, a carer assists people who experience such difficulties either by taking them to the bathroom and helping them bathe or use the toilet or, for the more immobile, by bathing them in their bed and using a bedpan or commode.
However, these traditional methods might entail a certain loss of dignity as well as presenting practical problems. Bathing in bed often leaves the bedclothes and mattress wet, while bedpans and toilet chairs are malodorous and have to be emptied, which can also affect hygiene.
Re-personalising personal hygiene
Intelligent Sanitary Unit for Disabled and Elderly People (ISU-DEP), an EU-backed research project, is developing a smart sanitary system designed to increase the autonomy of people with restricted mobility, as well as ease the burden on carers. With nearly €1 million in EU support, ISU-DEP has developed a prototype 'dry shower' and height-adjustable, fully automated portable toilet.
"The technology we have developed will improve the quality of life of older people and patients," explains Gottfried Seisenbacher, a researcher at the Vienna University of Technology (AT). "It will also make life easier for carers and health-care professionals."
The ISU-DEP project has created a system which is divided into several individual components. First, there is the docking station, which is hooked up to the electricity, water and sewage, and recharges the shower and toilet units and disposes of their waste. It is usually located in the bathroom, under the washbasin. "This design ensures that the system can be installed easily without having to remodel the building," notes Seisenbacher.
Although a single service module was originally envisioned for the shower and the toilet, the prototype developed includes two separate modules. This would allow them to be sold separately and addresses a key psychological concern. "Even though a single module is completely sanitary, our users told us that with only one service module they would have the impression they were washing with dirty toilet water," points out Seisenbacher.
The service modules hold most of the technology, such as water tanks, pumps, hoses, pipes, batteries and the electronics. They are connected to the portable toilet and bed shower, which can be wheeled around as required.
The most innovative aspect of the ISU-DEP technology – developed through collaboration among six partners from four EU Member States – is the shower unit. "The 'dry shower' is a unique idea, and the professionals we consulted had never heard of anything like it," Seisenbacher says. The shower is "dry" because the head – which is disposable to ensure hygiene – not only sprays water but sucks it all up, without any spillage, before it can run or drip away.
"This avoids having to change the bed sheets, which reduces carer effort," explains Seisenbacher. "Because after washing the skin is only a little damp and the bed remains dry, it is much more comfortable for the person being showered who usually has to endure half an hour of lying in a wet bed while being washed."
The toilet is also an innovative piece of technology. "As far as we know, there is no mobile, automatic flushing toilet available on the market," observes Seisenbacher. He also notes that the toilet is the first to have a height-adjustable seat, which enables those with impaired mobility to lower and raise themselves more easily.
Small ideas, enormous potential
ISU-DEP is financed by the Seventh Framework Programme's 'Research for SMEs' theme. With four SMEs onboard, the project builds on a previous EU-funded project which involved the Vienna University of Technology, the Friendly Rest Room (FRR), and a patented design for a no-spill bed shower developed by the Austrian SME partner.
The ISU-DEP consortium has already built a functional prototype and is now creating a 'field test' prototype to look and function like the final marketable product.
Owing to the enormous production costs involved in hand-building, the partners currently intend only to market it to care homes, hospitals and other professional facilities, because it will be unaffordable for home use at first.
Nevertheless, according to Seisenbacher, they are exploring ways to lower production costs and develop a mass production line, to reduce the price of the technology for professional use and help develop a home version of the product.
The partners are confident – based on user feedback – that the range of ISU-DEP products will find a good market; they have already set up a distribution network across Europe. "We're still looking for SMEs to distribute the product in a few countries, such as the UK, Spain and Portugal," says Seisenbacher.