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Wireless care for elderly and disabled people


In the past old age or disabilities have often implied a loss of independence, as elderly and disabled people find themselves reliant on family members and carers to look after them. In the future that situation may change, thanks to a location-aware mobile system developed by LOCOMOTION.

The central aim of the 30-month IST project is to allow elderly and disabled people to continue living independently, while at the same time providing peace of mind to their families and reducing the burden on professional carers. Using GPS in combination with standard mobile phones, the LOCOMOTION system provides elderly and disabled people with a way to contact carers, in effect extending in-home alarm systems to the street. In turn carers know where users are at all times.

“LOCOMOTION offers users greater independence and mobility by helping the elderly and people who suffer memory loss overcome their fear of leaving the house and becoming lost,” explains project coordinator Antonio Linares Torres at Indra Sistemas in Spain. “They know they have this electronic aide at their side that can put them in contact with a carer at anytime and that someone is watching over them constantly.”

The GPS employed in LOCOMOTION is accurate to around 50 metres depending on the users’ location, allowing carers to locate a person with high precision if they are in difficulty. “In urban areas and inside buildings the accuracy may be less, but the important thing is that it allows users to be located quickly and makes the response of emergency services faster if there is an incident,” Linares Torres says.

Remote monitoring for carers

Monitoring is performed through a call centre that employs a Web-based application to manage interaction with users’ mobile devices. The software also includes an automatic calling feature to contact users periodically to check if they are well. “If they respond to the call then carers know everything is okay, if not, carers know about it immediately,” the project coordinator notes.

Similarly, the system can be programmed to set specific ‘safety zones’ for each user.

“The safety zone could be the area around someone’s house or larger, wherever it is considered safe for them to go without becoming lost or putting themselves in danger,” Linares Torres explains. “If they leave the area an alarm will sound in the call centre and they can be contacted.”

Perhaps most importantly the mobile devices are easy to use. Two prototypes have been developed, one of which consists of a normal mobile phone with location awareness, while the other is a mobile tracking device with a single ‘panic button’ that puts users in contact with the call centre.

Trials with 40 volunteers in Germany and the United Kingdom have had a positive response from test users, none of whom had ever used mobiles before but all of whom noted the utility of the system. It is especially useful for people suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer’s or those whose health may be at risk but who wish to continue living independently, Linares Torres says. “The key thing is that users do not have to do anything more than carry the device around with them,” he notes.

However, if users want to – and are capable – they can use a range of other services provided by LOCOMOTION’s location awareness, such as finding the nearest pharmacy or hospital, and obtaining directions.

Besides the users themselves, the system also offers peace of mind to their families who can feel assured that elderly relatives are being monitored, while it also reduces the burden on professional carers, who do not have to be in physical proximity to a person to know they are well. This is especially important at a time when Europe’s public health services are becoming increasingly overloaded and there is a general trend toward non-institutional care.

A promising future

With the number of elderly people in the European Union set to rise from 21 per cent of the population at present to 34 per cent by 2050, the incidence of neuro-degenerative diseases associated with old age is likely to continue to increase. Telemedicine and telecare is part of the solution, and there is broad interest in employing systems such as LOCOMOTION in the future.

Linares Torres explains that the Red Cross, which is carrying out the German trials, has expressed an interest in using a commercial variant of the system, as too have public health care authorities, including Barnsley District General Hospital in the United Kingdom, which is conducting the British trials.

Notably, LOCOMOTION is cost effective because very few changes are needed to the mobile devices themselves and the call centre requires little infrastructure given that the application is Web-based. “We’re currently looking at the commercial possibilities for LOCOMOTION and we will probably develop it further after the project ends in October,” the coordinator says.

Tara Morris | alfa
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