We are living in a world with rapidly changing demographics. Our population is growing at unprecedented levels – 65 million and counting in the UK – and we’re living longer than ever, with one in five of us expected to live to a hundred years old.

An aging population inevitably means that demand for care will rise rapidly, while a rising populace also means that we can expect the 3 million figure of those currently receiving disability living allowance to increase further as our towns and cities grow larger.

One clear means of keeping a handle on this expanding requirement for independent living residences – and avoiding a care crisis in the process – lies in the connected home. Many of the technologies currently used in smart homes can be adapted to meet a number of needs, while connected technology solutions that are designed with particular circumstances such as blindness, deafness or immobility in mind are beginning to emerge. Putting such systems into people’s homes can reduce or even eliminate the need for dedicated care, and grant independence to those who might otherwise struggle with day-to-day activities.

Think first, act second

For those designing smart residences for people with special requirements, the starting point should be to determine the user’s specific needs, rather than immediately focusing on the technology available. While generally all smart home systems are tailored towards a homeowner’s desires, for this type of build the individual’s particular requirements are critical and may preclude the use of certain systems that would normally be the preferred option.

There are likely to be a number of stakeholders that will also need to be involved in this project research stage: this might include on- or off-site carers, family members or friends, as well as other relevant professionals. The means through which different stakeholders interact with the house might be very different to that of the resident, so a system has to be able to factor this in. As much information as possible about the occupier and their day-to day activities should be ascertained before the design process begins in earnest; depending on the physical and mental wellbeing of the user, this may be a complicated process and will need to be dealt with in a sensitive manner

Enable the occupant’s activities

A connected home for elderly or disabled residents will focus less on convenience and comfort, and instead place emphasis on empowering the user to do more in their residence. As some homeowners – particularly those of an advanced age – might be resistant to too many changes to their home environment, any changes to the set-up they are familiar with need to be handled very carefully. Each element should deliver on at least one of three objectives: increasing accessibility (for the occupant and for visitors), enabling communication with others and building the user’s independence.

Central for this will be the control system chosen. For many cases, introducing a significant amount of automation will be an advantage, as this lessens the physical requirements of the resident. For partially-sighted users, voice control of the various systems in the house will be a boon, while enhanced lighting systems can help aid navigation. Bringing control onto a mobile phone – particularly one built into the inherent accessibility functions of Apple and/or Android – will be useful not only for the visually impaired, who tend to use such devices extensively, but also those who are restricted in their movements and may not be able to access items such as a light switch or thermostat.

When it comes to alerts and notifications, this will sometimes need to be delivered in a non-standard way. For someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, it could be a good idea to implement a hardwired signalling system so that the user can know what is going on in and around the house. Fire prevention is another area that requires a novel approach and will need to work efficiently around the clock to ensure the safety of the resident.

A door entry system is a no-brainer for most of these scenarios but, in the case of elderly occupants, this will need to be easy-to-use or it will not be used by the homeowner. The same applies to the control system: if a client is not particularly technically astute, then a system will need to be both easy to use, simple to learn and feature an interface that is familiar enough to any existing technology that they feel comfortable about using it.  

Monitoring systems that track information such as appliance usage or motion in certain rooms are a key component of energy efficient and secure residences respectively, but they could also be used, along with reality mining software (or artificially intelligent neural networks), to identify common behavioural patterns and habits. Allowing systems to gain an understanding on how the homeowner behaves on a regular basis would mean that, should there be a sudden change, then caregivers or medical professionals could use this data to help them understand, for example, whether a change in medication was having an adverse effect on an elderly resident, who may not share this information openly with others.

Smarthome Apple Accessibility
A control system that can be built into an existing device will help make the transition easier for the homeowner.

Smarthome building disabled
Any smart technology implemented must not signficiantly impede the user should something go wrong with it

Fixate on flexibility

The needs of the user at the time of installation will not necessarily remain the same throughout their time in the property. This is particularly true for an elderly homeowner, as they are likely to become less mobile and more dependent on the technology they use as they become older. Resultantly, there is a need to specify a more flexible system that can be adapted over time to suit the needs of the occupant. Another point to consider is whether the implementation of technology to suit a particular occupant will impact on the property’s value should they decide to move on at a later date. A property that is completely tailored solely with one specific set of needs in mind only be of interest to buyers with similar requirements, or else those who are prepared to invest significant effort and expense in converting the connected home to their own preferences.

By building a substantial degree of adaptability into a smart home set-up and exploring the possibilities of adding wireless elements over a wired framework, a home can be at once suitable for a resident with changing needs, while also making it easy to adapt to create a more generic connected home set-up should the homeowner decide to sell up..

Home is where the heart is

While technology has played, and continues to play, a hugely significant role in allowing disabled and elderly people to achieve a greater degree of independence, this is an area of the connected home sector that is yet to fully realise its significant potential. Healthcare provision is already one of the most pressing challenges facing our generation, and this will only become more acute as population demographics shift in the coming years. Connected residential systems are by no means the only solution to this impending healthcare predicament, but it undoubtedly has an important role in keeping people able to remain in their homes and improving their quality of life.