We are not getting any younger. As Europe's population grows older, the need for care is growing and we are spending more and more money to get it. A new mobile video assistance technology promises to put off the need for carers, improve the life of older people and cut the cost of assistance.
Cardiovascular aerobics, package cruises in the Greek islands and high calcium diets. Today's silver brigade may well be the most active in history, but there comes a time when even 'super gran' must retire.
The first fall is often what sets it off. You think your elderly parent will always be there, but one day she is watching TV, the phone rings, she gets up too fast and she is on the floor before you know it. She has broken her hip, unable to move and her neighbour finds her the next morning.
It is a typical story. The loss of confidence in older people happens very fast. It only takes a little accident for things to start going downhill. And sooner or later the only plausible solution is to swap the familiar home environment for a nursing home.
In just over a decade, a quarter of Europe's population will be over 65. Spending on pensions, health and long-term care is expected to increase by 4-8% of GDP in coming decades, with total expenditure tripling by 2050.
So who will look after the parents and grandparents? Retirement homes have their drawbacks. They are expensive and can lead to loneliness and even depression. EU researchers have developed a new service that will put off the day when elderly people and people with specific support needs have to leave their homes.
The basic technology is pretty simple. You take a phone line, you use it to communicate to a teleassistance centre and you add an alarm trigger. 'It is quite a simple application that can be enhanced with new technologies, like ADSL, which gives bigger bandwidth to provide additional applications like videoconferencing and mobile features,' says Jose Luis Jorge Marrase, the man responsible for developing the Attentianet service.
Features include enhanced video assistance, using broadband communications and video telephony, and a mobile system which allows location tracking. The user can easily slip the transmitting device into a pocket and pop down to the supermarket, safe in the knowledge that a video teleassistance centre is permanently on call.
'We used special and very simple mobile phones with just two buttons. These can trigger a call to the teleassistance centre and at the same time the teleassistance centre can pinpoint the user's position,' says Jose Luis, coordinator of this EU-funded project which recently carried out tests in Spain and Belgium.
With around 21% of Europe's over 50s suffering from severe vision, hearing or dexterity problems, and only 10% of elderly people using the internet, the service has put a strong focus on usability. A serious amount of thought has gone into user-friendly terminal design, as well as on optimisation of assistance operations.
'In many cases, we have seen that [the service] is quite convenient for people who have never had a mobile phone before. There is a hands-free system to talk and we use network servers, integrated with the teleassistance centre, to support it, configure it, detect if the battery is low, or there is a fault. And there are some mobiles that can also detect if the user has suffered a fall,' says Jose Luis.
The positioning feature mainly uses AGPS, which is a faster version of GPS, assisted by a network server and which requires much less battery power to run on a mobile phone. 'We use a mix of technologies, because no single technology today can provide enough accuracy. AGPS is the best one, because its precision is very high, but it does not work in indoor environments,' says Jose Luis.
Attentianet is currently researching new indoor systems that can provide very accurate positioning inside the home and hopes to introduce video chat services and content exchange systems, such as IPTV, in the coming months.
Attentianet's main advantage is that it provides an integrated service. 'We found that competitors were only focusing on certain aspects. There are competitors who are working on systems just for mobile or just for video,' says Jose Luis. Attentianet has also had a significant impact on carers. 'They have a single point of contact from which to provide services, with all the information on the user centralised.'
This makes assistance more efficient, saving time and money. But perhaps most importantly, the service has enhanced relationships between the users and the carers.
'In many cases we've focused on people who are very lonely, isolated and who can't leave home and have little contact with other people. They really have quite an emotional relationship with the carers. Adding video means much more proximity. And with the mobile, the feeling of security is much higher.
'We found some women who suddenly took much more care of themselves because they had to be in video contact with others. [And carers can] look at how people were behaving and get much more valuable information.'
The Attentianet system, which is funded by the eTEN programme for market validation and implementation, is now ready for deployment: first, Spain and Belgium, with talks already in progress in Portugal and France.
And the assistance technology market has plenty of potential. Senior citizens in the EU have a combined wealth of over 3,000 billion EUR.
Social inclusion and accessibility are at the top of the European agenda, with a series of schemes being launched, under the framework of the i2010 initiative, aimed at increasing the participation of older people in the information society. The 'ageing well' action plan and a one billion euro joint European research plan encourage investment in ICTs targeted at improving the life of the elderly, helping them stay active for longer and live independently.
Two separate international conferences on the issue of assistive technology and its market and social impacts took place in early October in Duesseldorf, Germany, and San Sebastian, Spain. And the future of other initiatives on e-accessibility and e-inclusion are due to be reviewed by the European Commission over the coming months.