Nadia Theuma, Paragon Europe, Carl James Debono, University of Malta, Bruno Ando and Salvatore Castorina, University of Catania

Elderly persons are increasingly resorting to the use of technology to support them in their day to day activities. Be it smart phones to talk to their families or the use of skype to connect with relatives or friends overseas, the average elderly person is more conversant today with the use of technology. 

Besides communication, technology is essential in supporting an elderly person with retaining their own independent life as well enjoying healthy ageing. This theme was the main focus of the NATIFLife project which was supported by the INTERREG Italia-Malta Programme. The project, led by the University of Catania has Paragon Europe (Malta), the University of Malta, VITECO, Salupo, and CTA HELIOS, with the latter three organisations hailing from Sicily, as project partners. The project was instrumental as it created innovative technologies to promote healthy and independent living. For more information on the NATIFLife project visit the project website at www.natiflife-project.eu

As part of this project, the University of Catania and Paragon Europe conducted a research among Sicilian and Maltese people to assess the views of elderly persons and possible future users to assistive technologies.

The following are some of the findings of our research. A total of 225 persons aged between 20 and 81+ years were surveyed, with 63 per cent of all respondents being in the 50 years+ age bracket. More than 70 per cent of the respondents said that they resort to calling a relative or a medical person for help when required. Despite this observation, elderly persons remarked that they could experience problems in asking for help - this could be the result of the fact that elderly persons live on their own. Nearly all respondents agreed that it would be useful for a person living on his/her own that a caregiver or a relatives is kept informed of the well-being of a person or if the elderly person remains seated or lying down for a very long period of time.

Visuals appearing on the mobile app for the end user (elderly person).Visuals appearing on the mobile app for the end user (elderly person).

Respondents felt that receiving information on their health status and suggestions on how to improve daily habits are useful. This personalized approach to health is already available through technology such as smart watches and which elderly persons are becoming more confident to use. Other forms of technology such as smartwalkers, devices to monitor the usage of domestic appliances as well as apps where deemed as very useful by the respondents. 

The current situation where the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the elderly and vulnerable persons to physically isolate themselves, has highlighted the need for technology not only to help persons to communicate with one another but it has also brought to the forefront the need for technology to assist persons to live independently and healthily. The technologies developed through the NATIFLife project are aimed at this and further work and research will continue in the coming years to identify further ways in which technology can become more useful to the elderly persons.

The project has also provided us with the opportunity to test the use of the technology directly with end users in both Sicily and Malta. Respondents visited our two pilot demo sites in Adrano (Catania, Sicily) and Mosta (Malta) where they could experience directly the technology created through the project. Views and experiences of respondents were collected before and after they used the technologies created by the project consortium.

At the beginning of their visit we discussed with respondents their understanding and levels of comfort with the usage of technology. It is understandable that levels of technology usage or familiarity with technology varies among the 65+ age cohort. Respondents expressed mostly knowledge of technology for means of communication – with a very small number of individuals mentioning that they are also familiar with smartwatches and conversant with mobile technology. Following the introduction and a detailed visit to the demo site where the technology available was discussed at length, our respondents were given time to experiment for themselves how the technology can be used to assist them in their daily activities. For instance, the control of light switches through the smart phone app  for entering and leaving a room was seen as extremely beneficial especially since as we grow older, night vision deteriorates. 

The NATIFLife app provides a means to switch on and off lights remotely. Furthermore, through the depth vision cameras installed at the pilot demo site in Mosta, respondents could see at first-hand how their daily movements are monitored through the NATIFLIFE app and the integrated technologies developed through the project, whilst ensuring privacy and anonymity of the user. The use of the depth data compared to colour video provides reassurance on privacy and only positions of the elderly are displayed on the NATIFLife app. Therefore, the carer or family members can understand from these locations that the elderly is doing well and has done the daily chores. This depth-based monitoring and tracking system was developed by researchers at the University of Malta. 

Following the visit, we administered a set of qualitative questions to the users to monitor better their reactions. It is very clear that assistive technologies such as those developed through the NATIFLife project are needed and very much appreciated. It was also evident that not all users are confident with technology, however the more time people spent experimenting with smart watches or the smart app the more confident they grew with the technology and its application in their daily lives. 

The Living Lab in Malta is located at the University of Malta. This lab will continue to advance cutting edge research on assistive technologies. The pilot demo site in Mosta, is managed by Paragon Europe and will remain active for the next five years besides serving as venue to test the technologies developed through this project, the pilot demo site will also serve as a training site for the use of assistive technologies and independent living. Organisations dealing with elderly persons and or persons with disabilities as well IT software development companies are welcome to contact the undersigned for more information or to set an appointment to visit the pilot demo site and the assistive technologies at the site.

 

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