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How facial recognition could be key to maintaining independence of elderly

Our population is ageing and, increasingly, older people will be living alone. We know that, at the same time, budgets for social care are shrinking. So we need creative ideas to ensure the elderly can maintain independent, healthy lives.

Technology is part of the answer and at Twente Care Academy in the Netherlands, we were given a tour of simple ideas designed to allow older people to live by themselves, for longer.

The front door can be locked securely without the need for much dexterity. At the press of a button, the mattress in the bedroom bends and rotates to allow its occupant to get out without the need of a helper. In the kitchen, the counter’s height is easily adjustable, and a jug tracks how much water you’re drinking.

And if you’re worried about your health, a mini heart monitor attached to a smartphone can help diagnose problems and send real-time data to a doctor.

The Iron Hand is a robotic glove that restores grip to people who have lost it Credit: ITV News

Another impressive item is the Iron Hand, a robotic glove that restores grip to people who have lost it, for example after a stroke or an accident. There are touch sensors in the fingertips and when the user tries to grip a cup or bottle, say, the sensors activate tendons in the glove that pull the fingers tightly in.

In the future, scientists also want to integrate artificial intelligence into homes to learn how people live and watch out for problems. Facial recognition algorithms, for example, could detect the first signs of sadness or depression, which are major health concern for older people who live alone.

Simple technological ideas are being designed to allow older people to live by themselves, for longer Credit: ITV News

“The main difference is in the way people smile,” says Prof Maja Pantic of Imperial College London. “In depression the smiles get more polite and that can be detected automatically from the onset and the offset of the smiles.

"Usually in a polite smile the onset is very fast and the offset is also very abrupt. Or you have a lowering of the mouth corners which is typical for depression. This is not the case with genuine smiles of non-depressed people.”

Recognising faces has security advantages too: when an elderly person has new people in their home, artificial intelligence software running in the cameras could classify the visitors as friends or family or nurses or helpers.

“If a person who is not known appears in the house, we can raise a flag - this is for their safety for people with dementia, where they are not able to recognise that person,” says Prof Pantic.