In Finland, 20 per cent of the population is above the age of 65, and in 2030 their share will be 26 per cent. We live longer and, at the same time, the number of those suffering from memory disorders increases. At the moment, the number is almost 200,000, and every year 14,500 Finns are diagnosed with this disease.
VTT has been developing technological solutions serving the needs of the ageing population since the 1980s. With the introduction of data technology, the research has turned more into service development. Therefore, VTT’s holistic technological competence is a competitive asset.
– VTT studies how technology and such inventions as service robots can be harnessed to supporting the everyday life of the elderly. The new smart technologies are opening doors for this, says Jaana Leikas, Principal Scientist at VTT, Docent.
– In gerontechnology, we need to move on to a holistic approach in the planning of everyday activities, not forgetting the ethical viewpoints. Wellbeing and coping in everyday situations are important for the elderly persons themselves, their families and the whole society. Technology is an enabler – it does not replace human nursing or care.
The guidance application also supports voice navigation.
Smart technologies at home prepare for the future
More and more people want to live at their own homes as long as possible, or are forced to do so due to, for example, limited amount of care apartments. Homes can be adjusted to meet the needs of ageing persons or persons with a memory disorder. Sensor technology detecting activity and use of the Internet of Things enable a digital leap that supports good, independent living at home.
– Smart and unobtrusive technology helps to anticipate critical changes in functional ability and to address them at sufficiently early phases, Leikas emphasises.
Data can be collected by, for example, equipping home appliances, building technology systems and furniture with sensors. They detect whether the grandfather has remembered to open the refrigerator door to get something to eat, gotten up from bed, fallen down in his apartment or remembered to go for a walk. In accordance with the consent given by the resident, the data can be used by, for example, the spouse, family members living in another town, or municipal home or health care professionals.
VTT’s Research Scientist Päivi Heikkilä is involved in developing Pepper’s social skills in an international project.
Pepper is a 120-centimetre tall social robot that reacts to eye contact and greetings.
There is demand for digital senior services
Senior citizens will become an increasingly common sight in the transit system. An easy-to-use guidance application that works in the mobile phone is currently being developed for the elderly: it guides people all the way from their home door to the desired place step by step. It, for example, guides people to walk to a public transport stop and provides the relevant schedule data in real time, and helps in changing routes and getting off at the right stop.
– The service helps and encourages older people to use public transport. Some user tests have already been performed, and the next step is to place the service to the market, says Samuli Heinonen Research Scientist at VTT.
– The retail sector is undergoing a major transition in service provision and is seeking new business opportunities. Senior citizens are a growing consumer group with considerable purchasing power. Some of them live in areas from where conventional shopping services have disappeared.
– VTT has been collaborating with the retail sector for more than a decade to develop cost efficient solutions for everyday use, says Jari Kaikkonen, Research Team Leader at VTT.
For example, in the Kauppahuone-2016 project, an experiment “Easy guitar service through your local shop” was made, where the extra service provided by a music shop was made available through a local shop. In another project, an extended selection of products was made available at a small local shop operating with a light cost structure by means of an online service. Such services bring added value to the elderly as well.
Stop Diabetes (StopDia), being implemented in 2016–2019, is an extensive Finnish research project involving a large number of organisations. The new StopDia model, which also applies digital technologies, promotes wellbeing and healthy lifestyles, thus reducing the occurrence of type 2 diabetes. It is also used for building pathways towards change.
– Next, we will examine how the model impacts lifestyles and the risk of diabetes in practice. The target group includes 10,000 Finnish people with an elevated risk of diabetes, Research Scientist Johanna Leväsluoto relates.
Robotics creating new service opportunities
VTT and Attendo tested in a two-month trial an easy-to-use, remote-operated telepresence robot with an elderly person living in a nursing care facility. With the help of the robot the resident could discuss with her family members living farther away. The results seem promising: telepresence supports the feeling of social connection and helps to alleviate family members’s worry of the older person. The care facility staff also considered the experiment positive.
The trial was part of a project, which studies the joint development of gerontechnology and
its adoption in Finnish and Japanese care organisations. The trial will be repeated at an assisted-living facility in Hervanta of Tampere for another project studying the possibilities of care robots in Finnish elderly care. In collaboration with the University of Tampere, the telepresence robot is also tested in different recreational activities encouraging participation of the residents and visitors at the same facility.
At the moment, VTT and the Japanese research institute AIST are surveying the attitudes of the elderly on assisting technologies in both countries.
– The Finnish respondents seem to be more positively inclined towards assisting technologies than the Japanese respondents, with the exception of social robotics. 40–60% of the Finnish respondents were interested in using such assisting systems as mobility and hygiene support technologies, automatic drug dispensing machines and games preventing dementia both as a means to support independent living and in their own care. The survey was conducted in Japan and Finland among people above the age of 65 who live at their own homes and do not use care services or care provided by family members, says Senior Scientist Marketta Niemelä.
In another project, VTT is collaborating with the shopping centre Ideapark Lempäälä to develop a Japanese-French service robot Pepper in a EU-funded project. Pepper is different from most robots in that it is social and reacts to people’s feelings. Based on facial expressions, gestures and a tone of voice, it recognises when a person is, for example, happy or anxious. Pepper is developed to function independently and naturally, and to entertain and assist people of different ages in Finnish. The first visits to the shopping centre have been made, and the reception has been positive. We are only beginning to realise the opportunities social robots like Pepper can offer in such uses as promotion of better lifestyles for the elderly.
Photos: Samuli Heinonen, Marketta Niemelä, Sirpa Posti