Engaging the Expertise of Senior Entrepreneurs

How can we adapt living spaces for the elderly?

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The ageing process can be compared to degradation in shades of grey, where the gradual darkening corresponds to the physical and cognitive decline that happens over time. Each person has different needs for help throughout life, in the various “shades of grey” that they go through. So the challenge is to adjust the support context—where the house is an important element—according to the needs at each moment.

Although advances in science make it possible to live longer, living longer is not synonymous with quality of life. The current models for support to the elderly advocate staying at home, not institutionalisation. For this reason, in order to maintain quality of life despite physical and cognitive decline it is necessary to align three components: housing, the environment and support services for the elderly.

Bringing together construction and digital technology

Today opportunities are emerging to design housing that can adapt to the consequences of the aging process by intersecting the physical infrastructure with digital technology’s potential. Despite the obvious advantages, these two worlds have never been brought together, perhaps due to their inherently different speeds of development. While the construction of housing is a more permanent activity, the digital component is subject to short-term cycles imposed by an aggressive consumer market.

The challenge is to consider housing in an organic way, incorporating digital technology in an integral way, and not through the simple addition of “gadgets.”

The house must still be prepared to communicate with the outside. The day will come when the person will need the support of formal and informal caregivers, so the house will have to be prepared not only to welcome the elderly but also to allow connection with outside services. An example of this is home hospitalisation, where the elderly can recover in the comfort of their home with clear gains for their quality of life, away from potential infections.

In fact, technologies to support active and healthy ageing can help to integrate the person, the home, the external environment, and care services. However, although digitalisation is an opportunity to put the person at the centre of the process, for an effective impact, it is essential to introduce new ideas in the design of housing, developed by teams that can express the real needs of the elderly through digital skills with long-term vision. This would mean utilisation of digital technologies that are less influenced by major brands that impose proprietary systems, and more focused on working out standards for the present and future.

Silver Staters is a project that trains seniors to start their own business and makes them feel useful during the aging process
Silver Starters, a project developed by the LAS at the Instituto Pedro Nunes, trains seniors to start their own businesses. Photo by fauxels/Pexels

The employment of seniors can help to activate the Silver Market

Despite the encouraging development of products targeting the “Silver Market” their success has not been very visible. One of the reasons for this failure, which is merely a perception rather than a scientific fact, is the age range of the teams dedicated to developing these products. The needs of seniors are not easily identifiable by those who are not elderly. This is why these products are developed on the basis of misperceptions, which limit their adoption and subsequently their commercial success.

There are two possible actions that can overturn this reality: the presence of the elderly in the various stages of product development—ideally by being integrated into the company’s staff—and the encouragement of senior entrepreneurship. Senior entrepreneurship can be seen as a way to resolve the employability problem resulting from a society that cannot adjust the labour market to the particular characteristics of the older person. It also takes advantage of the impressive capital of accumulated knowledge and skills that seniors can offer society. Moreover, it can be seen as a way to ensure harmony between those who develop the products and those who use them. In other words, if there are more companies that engage the elderly to develop products for the Silver Market, the probability of adoption will increase.

The following are four examples developed by the Laboratory of Automation and Systems (LAS) at the Instituto Pedro Nunes (IPN) that illustrate how technology can help mitigate physical and cognitive decline by integrating the elderly with their home and environment.

CaMeLi, Care Me for Life: The idea of the project is to provide a system that simulates the way in which a senior would like to interact, collaborate and communicate with a human life partner who would understand their needs and assist them in carrying out daily life activities at home by expressing emotions that will motive the senior to take action.

Cogniwin Mouse is a product that helps people to be more competent in digital tasks during the aging process
Cogniwin Mouse, a product developed by the LAS at the Instituto Pedro Nunes. Photo © Diana Guardado

Cogniwin, Cognitive Support for older adults at work: This solution improves the efficiency and effectiveness at work of older adults through a series of assistive software (assistance for learning and a well-being advisor) and monitoring devices (an intelligent mouse equipped with sensors and eye tracking system).

Toilet4me: The Toilet4me project provides a smart toilet solution for ageing well. It addresses the needs of the elderly—and persons of all ages with impairments and disabilities—when using a toilet outside the home in public or semipublic environments (e.g. in community centres, town halls, shopping malls, museums, theaters, hotels, etc.).

Silver Starters: Most start-up courses target and are tailored to young entrepreneurs. Given our increasing possibility to live longer and healthier lives, more and more seniors are considering a second career based on start-ups, which are shown to be beneficial for well-being and health. The Silver Starters fills this gap and trains them to start their own businesses, which promotes healthy living and active ageing. The target is 50+ individuals who are unemployed and retirees that wish to work again.

All in all, the growing need for care arising from an ageing population will tend to change the way we live at home, as well as how the home is connected to the different support services. It is essential, therefore, to start working now on new approaches to ensure quality care without making the costs unaffordable.

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