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Vulnerable elderly people in society often have to rely on themselves. They are left alone at home and caregivers cannot always be present. Masi Mohammadi, professor of Smart Architectural Technologies at the Eindhoven University of Technology, has come up with an idea for this. By installing smart technology in the homes of seniors with dementia, they can be reminded to get up and eat something on time. “We want to empower the elderly.”

This kind of smart home is mainly aimed at elderly people who are suffering from dementia. “All too often people with dementia are living alone. We want to help these people by creating a stimulating environment for them.” In order to do this as well as possible, Mohammadi works with an artificial intelligence system that learns from the behavior of the elderly themselves and their caregivers. “Caregivers often help the elderly to remember things. Then they ask the elderly over and over again: ‘Shall we go for a walk, shall we eat something’? The system learns from that and also applies these memories on its own accord.”

A pilot home has been built in the meantime. The experimental home focuses mainly on two problems that people with dementia often face: A disrupted day and night rhythm and an irregular eating pattern. In the afternoon, for example, an image-sound signal is sent to remind seniors to eat a sandwich. And not just that. “The smell of baked bread is also spread throughout the house. The elderly person will then be led to the kitchen via arrows on the floor.”

The elderly are embracing smart technology

It seems that the elderly and caregivers are already starting to embrace this new technology. “After an article appeared in the Eindhovens Dagblad newspaper, I started getting emails from caregivers asking me to help them. Unfortunately, I had to disappoint them, but this is an indication that there is a demand for it.”

Mohammadi believes that if technology is applied in an ’empathic’ way, the elderly will not shy away from it. “A misperception exists about the elderly and technology. People often say that older people are less open to technology than younger people. But if we take a look at who is embracing technology nowadays, it is often the elderly. Nevertheless, they are critical. They don’t want to be completely wrapped up in technology and surrounded by it. But that’s a very sensible perspective.”

Brabant as one of the frontrunners in the field of data

The smart house is not the first domotics (home automation) research project at the Eindhoven University of Technology. Mohammadi notes that Brabant is one of the provinces at the forefront of smart technology. “In 2014, we released a study that looked at the state of home automation in our country. We also looked at the differences between the provinces. You could see that Brabant is active in this domain. Mohammadi points out that the province focuses on the development of knowledge in the field of smart care. “Healthcare institutions in the province also seem to be enthusiastic. We are working with a number of care organizations and housing corporations in Brabant on our Empathic Living Labs platform,” she adds

Preparing society for home automation

Although a lot of progress has already been made with the project, the smart house is not yet ready for use in the community. “The system has not yet been set up for that,” Mohammadi explains. “Where should the elderly turn to when a smart device malfunctions? If your car breaks down, you go to the car mechanic on the corner. But with home automation, it is much more difficult to find somewhere to go. I built two test homes in Eindhoven and noticed that elderly people would call me if an application didn’t work. They simply had nowhere else to go.”

We also need to think even more carefully about the personalized signals that are given. “Signals can also create the opposite effect. When a person hears a voice telling them to go to the kitchen, some elderly people don’t understand where the voice is coming from and then they become anxious. In that case, we miss the mark completely.”

Ethical discussion

In her opnion, apart from developing technology, it is also important to involve society in the ethical discussion surrounding technology. “Elderly people accept technology more quickly if it is used in an empathic way. Consequently, something like the Data Week in Den Bosch, where a lot of attention is paid to this subject, is important in Mohammadi’s view. “We have to look at what people want and, above all, are still able to do. And if we have a clear idea of what that is, then we can adapt the technology accordingly. And not the other way around.”

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