ExtraCare is bringing the latest home automation devices into its retirement villages to help the over-55s enjoy longer, healthier and happier lives.
“When you go to bed at night and it feels your weight going on the sensor, it will turn the lights off for you,” explains Kerry Stack, research and innovation lead at ExtraCare. “In the morning, when you get out of bed, the coffee machine will switch on and the lights will come on. By the time you come back from the bathroom, your coffee is brewed, and the blinds are open.”
Welcome to the innovation apartment at Solihull Village, the latest development to be opened by The ExtraCare Charitable Trust, which describes itself as the UK’s leading not-for-profit provider of retirement villages for people aged 55 and over. ExtraCare, which runs 16 retirement villages and four housing schemes across the Midlands and surrounding regions, actively promotes independent living among its residents.
The charity has won numerous awards for the quality of its housing and the wide range of services that it provides, which include volunteering opportunities and inter-generational mixing. And now it is spearheading the use of smart technology to support independent living, health and wellbeing among older people, after participating in a research programme looking at how smart devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) could improve life for residents.
From 2018 to 2020, ExtraCare took part in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with the University of the West of England (UWE) to trial the benefits of introducing smart tech and IoT devices at its Stoke Gifford Retirement Village on the outskirts of Bristol. The trial is one of several case studies featured in the IET’s forthcoming report ‘Smart Homes for Healthier Ageing’, which outlines the latest developments in the UK’s age-tech market.
Under the KTP, Stoke Gifford set up an innovation apartment showcasing a wide range of devices, conducted a longitudinal study of smart-tech effectiveness in the apartment of one resident, trialled a telepresence robot, and introduced a smart market where residents could borrow devices to try them out. The successful trial, which was led and monitored by UWE’s Bristol Robotics Lab, prompted the charity to adopt a strategy that commits it to introducing an innovation apartment in every new retirement village and offering a smart market at all existing ones.
Shirley Hall, former head of innovation and wellbeing at ExtraCare, said Covid-19 interrupted some aspects of the project, such as full trials of telepresence robots, but boosted others, such as the use of video-calling and telepresence robots for remote exercise classes, contact with families and GP appointments.
Over the course of the KTP, smart markets were extended to four villages, with around 300 residents taking part, while a subsequent survey of 586 ExtraCare residents found that 65 per cent felt fairly or very confident with technology; more than half owned a Google Home or Amazon Alexa device – with 16 per cent making use of such smart assistants; 90 per cent had a mobile phone and 68 per cent were open to trying new technology.
Hall, who is now head of care and wellbeing at Retirement Villages Group, said the survey reassured ExtraCare that results of the KTP were on the right lines and the charity should continue with the roll-out of smart tech across its villages. “We realised that there was a willingness for many of our residents to learn more because so many of them had either got a Google Home or an Amazon Alexa, had got a smartphone, had got access to a computer. So it said [that] it was an open door for us really – and that’s why Solihull did continue.”
The KTP, which was jointly funded by InnovateUK and ExtraCare, was a forerunner to the Healthy Ageing Challenge (HAC), one of four Grand Challenges for research and innovation in the government’s 2017 Industrial Strategy, which aimed to put the UK “at the forefront of the industries of the future, ensuring that the UK takes advantage of major global changes, improving people’s lives and the country’s productivity”. The HAC challenge fund was set up in response to projections of a rapid increase over coming decades in the proportion of the UK’s population who are aged 65 and older. By 2050, one in four people in the UK will be aged 65 or above, up from one in five in 2019, according to the Office for National Statistics.
The demographic trend is set to place huge pressures on society and the economy – and on the healthcare system in particular. Innovations that support older people to live independent, healthy lives for longer are widely acknowledged as being the key to tackling such pressures, with research indicating that independent living is the most popular lifestyle among the age group and also leads to reduced healthcare costs.
Entering the £61.5m retirement village in Solihull, which opened in January 2021, is like walking into the foyer of an upscale hotel – residents sit talking at tables in the large bistro and bar, which is surrounded by leisure facilities including hair and beauty salons, an arts and crafts room, and a gym. Yet 20 per cent of the 261 apartments are rented out as social housing through Solihull Council.
The innovation apartment incorporates all the smart tech that was trialled at Stoke Gifford, with other stand-out items including a Deebot robot vacuum cleaner, a Ring video doorbell that can set off an LED lightshow for people with impaired hearing, a Bluetooth mirror that will light up for those with limited vision, and Medisana scales that can measure your vital signs. It also has a wall-mounted iPad linked to the Solihull Village network that provides a morning wellbeing check and information about activities and events. The iPad is fitted in all apartments.
Open days are held every couple of months by Stack and other members of ExtraCare’s research and innovation team, who go on to mount a smart market the following week in the village’s communal area. The market offers all the devices that are showcased in the apartment on loan to residents for a three-month period free of charge.
Michael Spellman, ExtraCare’s wellbeing research and innovation lead manager, says: “We are very fortunate in that we have got the research and innovation team. They are peripatetic and work across all our locations.”
At the smart market, the team get to know residents and their issues and suggest tech solutions that might help, says Spellman. “Then they package it all together and bring it to the resident and staff and say: ‘This could work for you’,” he says, adding that the team will then install it in the resident’s apartment, if the proposed solution is accepted.
Stack said the open days were “fully booked out and we were having to put people on lists and reserve lists for other days”, while the smart markets helped to overcome residents’ hesitancy about using tech. “We are kind of opening their eyes to things and then they will give it a go,” she says. “It gives them confidence to either buy the item or say: ‘No, it’s not for me’.”
While the research and innovation team provide vital support to residents who are learning to use smart devices, ExtraCare has also been taking part in a 12-week digital upskilling programme for residents in partnership with AbilityNet, a charity that aims to make digital technology available to all. ConnectingU has provided 30 residents with Chromebooks plus six months’ data from the National Databank free of charge, along with training from volunteers in how to use them.
Under the HAC, the government set itself a mission to “ensure that citizens can enjoy at least five extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035, while narrowing the gap between the experience of the richest and poorest in society”. With much of the existing housing stock being poorly adapted for the needs of older people, kickstarting innovation in digital technology and intelligent building design to support healthy ageing is critical to achieving the ambitious target.
As well as adapting IoT devices to support healthy ageing through initiatives such as the ExtraCare KTP, the challenge is funding smart tech innovations for remote diagnosis and health monitoring, development of wireless systems and sensors to improve indoor environmental standards for older people, and design of new, age-friendly homes and communities.
To date, UK Research and Innovation has invested more than £100m in 121 research projects under the HAC, many of which focus on age-tech. In the current round, total funding of £31m, comprising £15.5m in grant funding plus matched private equity investment, is available to businesses for projects costing up to £2m each.
“It is fantastic to see such a broad range of [initiatives] coming from so many different parts of the sector,” says Sophie Taysom, director of Keyah Consulting, who is an assessor for the funding body InnovateUK. “It’s very much industry-led and it has a hyper-local focus that could potentially then be accelerated and distributed around the country. There are some absolutely brilliant initiatives.
Taysom, who led a series of webinars for the IET on healthy living and housing, says it was “really, really helpful” that the mission statement for the HAC was “clearly described”. “There is a very clear ambition that can be measured against – we either get there or we don’t, and that is incredibly useful for focusing hearts and minds.”
Smart tech offers a range of “very clear opportunities to think differently about how we support healthy ageing”, she says. These include adapting aspects of the built environment such as air quality, noise and temperature to the needs of older people; and using smart tech to reduce social isolation, identify fall risk, reduce the need for care visits and support independent living.
“Underlying all this, there is something really important about consent,” says Taysom. “The elderly are not a homogenous group, so, we need to engage with people to understand their needs and wants, and that very much comes into the design phase.
“It’s that critical point about engaging stakeholders from the outset. So, it’s looking at that potential user-group or consumer and very much doing a co-design process. For engineers and technologists, it’s really about having those conversations very early on and [then] continuing to have those conversations and test thinking.”