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Tech for good: How the Internet of Things is revolutionizing the wellbeing of residents in assisted living

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible)

With the UK currently in the throes of a social care crisis, events like the Covid-19 pandemic have exacerbated the challenges that local authorities and private care providers face in delivering meaningful yet cost-effective care to vulnerable people in assisted living.

To make matters worse, the Telecare Services Association [TSA] has reported that technology-enabled care [TEC] solutions used to monitor the wellbeing of assisted living residents, many of which rely heavily on analog telecoms services, are under threat of becoming obsolete by 2025 when the nation’s telecoms infrastructure is fully upgraded to digital connectivity.

While this is certainly alarming, research suggests that many of these existing solutions are actually falling short of expectations when it comes to safeguarding wellbeing, making the need for a new, digital-friendly and highly effective solution all the greater.

As Internet of Things [IoT] devices play an increasingly prevalent role in day-to-day life, developers are constantly looking at ways how such technologies can be harnessed to respond to the crisis in assisted living and help revolutionize how the well-being of the most vulnerable people in our society is monitored.

The challenge of pendant alarms 

Before determining how IoT can help to bring about positive change in the care sector, it is necessary to establish some of the most common problems associated with traditional solutions.

For example, pendant alarms – devices worn on a lanyard around the neck or on the wrist that allow the wearer to call for emergency help at the press of a button – have been a go-to, analog-reliant assistive product in the industry for some time, but statistics from Alertacall show that up to 80 percent of owners do not always wear them, with a further 24 percent saying that they never wear them at all.

While there are a number of reasons why so many residents do not wear pendant alarms, the most common one seems to stem from the stigma attached to wearing such devices.

Many users do not like to feel ‘old’ or want to accept that they need extra help, so an alarm that is worn around the neck at all times can sometimes be seen as a badge of vulnerability by the person wearing it.

The above figures are indicative of a worrying trend within assisted living that is causing a serious delay in response times when service users have accidents or become ill and are unable to raise an alert because they do not have their alarm on their person.

The reliance of pendant alarms on residents to wear and use them is perhaps their most serious failing, and can provide a false sense of reassurance to carers, friends and relatives alike.

However, the emergence of IoT-centric assisted living solutions are helping to remove the need for this level of human interaction altogether.

The benefits of IoT 

IoT devices can be installed in the homes of users to unobtrusively monitor their activity and can alert carers to any sudden drop in activity so that an emergency visit or call can be made as soon as possible.

Additionally, the ability of IoT to provide real-time reporting allows for early intervention to be made and helps care providers to prioritize visits to service users based on the level of need, having the potential to greatly minimize the risk of serious injury and, in some cases, even death. 

Not only does this improve the level of monitoring a resident receives – thereby taking a much-needed strain off social care services – it has the potential to offer greater peace of mind to family members and friends while safeguarding the independence of the user. 

What’s more, some IoT solutions do not require power or internet connectivity in order to function, overcoming the reliance of many analog-based solutions on sending alarm data via the Public Switched Telephone Network [PSTN].

Instead, alerts are raised via SMS, email or thorough a customized web-based reporting dashboard, allowing care providers and family members to make a call or visit the service user to assess the situation and identify whether or not intervention is required.

Addressing privacy concerns 

All of this is not to say that IoT solutions do not face stigma, just as pendant alarms do. 

After all, when many people think of ‘IoT’, they are likely to consider the ways by which smart-home devices using such technologies – like Amazon Alexa and Google Home – gather personal data to target users with advertising that is relevant to their online activity.

This perception can understandably make residents in assisted living suspicious of IoT solutions used to monitor their everyday activity, so it is important for those installing the devices to understand the degree of personal data that they collect and to help allay any concerns that residents might have about their privacy. 

Though many devices use a range of data sets to monitor activity, there are a small number that only collect atmospheric data based on the movement of the resident around their home, which plays a vital role in alerting carers to potential emergency situations as early as possible if the level of activity falls below pre-agreed tolerance levels.

The emphasis of such solutions, therefore, is to monitor residents’ activity without intruding on their privacy, providing a further boost to the sense of independence that so many desire, yet feel is unattainable with other, TEC solutions.

More action is needed 

IoT solutions are certainly becoming increasingly popular in assisted living as word of their many benefits travel throughout the sector, but there is still much progress that must be made if they are to become an industry-wide standard.

With some local authorities across the UK having already shown strong results from their pilot schemes with IoT monitoring devices, it is crucial that many more consider the benefits that piloting the technologies themselves could bring in helping to turn the tide on the care sector crisis. 

The issue that many IoT solutions face, however, is that they are neither cost-effective nor simple to install, so if they are to be deployed en masse in residents homes, councils need to ensure that they use those solutions that are low cost, at the same time as being both unobtrusive and effective at protecting the wellbeing of residents. 

Local authorities, care regulators and telecommunications now just have to work with developers to ensure that the transition from analog to digital is handled well, vulnerable people are not placed at risk, and the potential of a digital future for assisted living is fully realized.

Emma Mahy, Founder & CEO, IoT Solutions Group

Emma Mahy, Founder & CEO of the IoT Solutions Group.