Bridges vol. 42, December 2014 / Feature
By Kerstin Zimmerman
How can information and communication technology (ICT) help the elderly live independently in their homes? Nowadays humans live longer lives, despite the overall shrinking population in Europe. Due to this demographic change, who will take care of the elderly and ensure the quality of life for every citizen?
In Europe, the number of people over 65 years old will double by 2050. This puts a heavy burden on the health and welfare system, especially when combined with a declining work force. Taking on this challenge is an opportunity for innovation, not only for society but also for the industrial sector.
In 2008 EU Member States, in cooperation with the European Commission, started the Ambient Assisted Living Joint Program (AAL JP) to develop ICT-based solutions (products and services) for older persons at home, in the community, and at work. €300 million in funding was dedicated to cooperative research projects until 2013.
During that time, over 150 projects were created to prevent and manage chronic conditions among an aging population, and to advance social interaction, create independence and participation in a “self-serve” society, advance mobility and, finally, to enable self-management of daily lives at home and continuing in their occupations. The best projects were rewarded at the annual AAL Forum.
One of the main solutions has been assistance with smart home installation including fall detection, digital photo albums, and storytelling to remind occupants to conduct tasks such as take their medication or go to appointments. These devices also offer lifestyle-coaching functions and outdoor alarms. They are jointly developed and tested by government programmers in supporting European nations with the end users being the elderly, as well as their families and caregivers.
The European market has fragmented assisted living standards, due to the different language and culture barriers as well as differing pensions and health insurance systems and varying local organizations of care providers, so many small and medium enterprises (SME) have taken the opportunity to find new business models in AAL.
Because of the success of the original AAL JP, the program is now entering its second phase as an Active and Assisted Research and Development Program, set to continue until 2020. It will follow a more challenge-driven approach, as in the first call for proposals, “Care of the Future,” in 2014. The agenda includes developing new instruments for bridging the gap between developments and entering the market as commercial products.
AAL in Austria
Austria, as one of the founding members of the AAL JP, has been successful in the
AAL projects on both national and European levels. It started in 2007 with its own program benefit, setting up studies on the potential of AAL and researching how to integrate end users in the projects while considering their wishes and needs. The ethical aspects of assisted living were also extensively considered.
Until now, the Austrian Federal Ministry of Transport, Innovation and Technology (BMVIT) have funded about 100 projects. The interdisciplinary consortia consist of industry and research partners with end user involvement. Together, they work to develop different ICT solutions in the areas of lifestyle, e-inclusion, comfort, daily activities, mobility, and security.
In order to reach a critical mass and prove the concept of these approaches, AAL test regions were started in 2011, trying to combine Smart Home technology with smart services for older persons. These test regions include a minimum of 50 equipped households with a long-term evaluation within the three-year project duration and an apartment used for visits and marketing.
So far, three AAL test regions exist throughout the country: one in Burgenland in the southeast, one in Tyrol in the west, and one in Salzburg. Supporting countries of AAL also work with both urban and rural locations when creating new smart homes.
The national community of the various players is organized in the platform AAL Austria, also supported by the government. AAL Austria works to spread the successful programs from other nations and collect a critical mass of research, development and innovation at EU level in technologies and services for ageing well in the information society. Working groups are established to share the experiences within the projects, define and classify the products and services, and develop a common vision of the future.
An inter-ministerial group, established to work on the quality of life and demographic changes among an aging population, will provide recommendations on this topic that will then be implemented by the work program of the federal government.
Kerstin Zimmermann is a visiting expert at OSTA. She has served as a policy and program officer at the Austrian Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology since 2005. She is responsible for research funding in Information and Communication Technology (ICT), with special focus on older persons.