Cognitive Support Technology for Older People

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Reading Time: 5 minutesVital Mind and Hermes LogosOn Wednesday 15th December 2010 I attended a Workshop on Cognitive Support Technology for Older People at Goldsmiths, London University in New Cross. The event was organised jointly by two EU funded technology projects – Vital Mind and Hermes. Read the workshop handout (PDF document).

Here is my brief write-up of the event.

Why I went

I decided to attend the event as I wanted to learn more about assistive and support technology for the elderly and to also explore a perceived overlap with web accessibility for the disabled – my specialist area.

The attendees were a mixture of research associates, lecturers and project managers from varied institutions working in the support technology areas.

The presentations

Introduction and research

After an introduction to the event by Jonathan Freeman of i2 Media Research at Goldsmiths Katie Hansen from OFCOM shared with us a selection of the research OFCOM have carried out on UK citizens’ digital participation. Katie was the first person of the day to point out that the needs of elderly and disabled overlap significantly.

Age-related changes

Following Katie was Alex Carmichael from the University of Dundee who outlined the age-related changes found in older adults. He covered the physical (eg motor control, sensitivity), sensory (eg sight, hearing) and cognitive (eg intelligence, memory) changes that are experienced by most of us as we get older. These changes may not always be apparent ‘on the surface’ and can be masked by other factors – eg if your hearing is impaired it may appear that your memory is poorer.

He dispelled a common myth about decline – that everyone declines at a fairly constant rate. The reality is that the range of abilities actually widens. Some people may lose none of their faculties – others decline more so. The dominant change is an increase in diversity of ability.

Alex finished by stating that age-related decline can be minimised by keeping the mind and body active, and by maintaining interest and motivation.

Support Technology Projects

The rest of the morning featured updates on a number of EU funded projects in the support technology area.

Vital Mind

Andrea Miotto of Goldsmiths told us about the Vital Mind project – to deliver cognitive and physical training to older people. Reflecting the current preferences of older people this training is to be delivered via TV – using a set-top box and a personalised USB stick to record individual performance and tailor the training accordingly.

Another strand is the provision of a family tree and scene composer – “A bit like a Second Life for the elderly” as Andrea put it.

Hermes Project

Sebastian Prost of Cure then talked about the Hermes Project. This project is developing technology that aims to help older people improve their memory and so improve their wellbeing.

A mobile recording device can be used to record conversations with a doctor (for example) which is then stored on a computer at home. Video and audio monitoring of the person’s home also can be used to record social interactions for later review. There are also games to train the memory and manual skills, and a calendar facility to record future events.

The user interface to the Hermes technology is via touch screen monitors. Obviously this would not be accessible to people with visual impairments and more severe motor impairments and there are currently no plans to allow access via other input/output devices – eg screen readers.

CompanionAble Project

The CompanionAble Project involves the development of a domestic robot and a monitored home environment which help with the care of the elderly ‘owner’ – including fall detection, medication reminders, warning of hazardous situations etc.

Ali Khan from the Intelligent Media Systems & Services Research Centre in Reading described the various interactions that were possible and showed us pictures of the actual robot. There is a video on the News Page of the CompanionAble site too.

OASIS Project

Karel Van Isacker from the OASIS Project pointed out that many technological support solutions so far are not integrated, and the project is aimed as an open architecture for accessible services integration. Cognitive training, fall detection and a safety beacon are some of the benefits offered.

There is an animated video on the project website that shows how the technology could work together.

Realising the benefit of support technology

After lunch, Alex Conconi of TXT e-solutions stated that the terrain for support technology manufacturers was unclear – with a growing demand but with a fragmented market, lack of information and uncertain profit margins. He argued that we need to develop innovative business models as the existing template will not work. User acceptance is also paramount.

Maurice Mulvenna from the University of Ulster talked about the experience of older dementia sufferers in Northern Ireland – from the possible later diagnosis and the technology that could help them navigate through their day. He talked about the Nocturnal Project which deals with the needs of people with dementia at night time.

Jane Hendy from Imperial College London delivered a presentation on Implementing Remote Care in the UK. Remote care is care delivered wherever the user wants it – in their own home etc. She told us the UK has taken a strong lead but it’s not mainstream yet. Pockets of excellence have not spread and have sometimes pilot projects have not been sustained as the local benefits will not always translate nationally. Remote care provision won’t work unless all areas can co-operate. Technology can provide solutions but there are many silos and professional boundaries to overcome.

Gian Matteo Apuzzo from the Friuli Venezia Giulia region of Italy told us that his area of northern Italy has more elderly people than anywhere else in Italy. He pointed up the vast differences between rates of long-term care of elderly people at home in different EU countries – from 5% – 25%. The challenge is to get business opportunities in an integrated (public and private) social strategy.

Finally Patrick Langdon from University of Cambridge talked about the GUIDE Inclusive Set-Top Box. The project concerns building a set-top box with a layer of accessibility software. The box features multi-modal functionality for combinations of impairments. There will be a variety of input methods supported – speech, gesture (Wii), remote control, adaptive multi-touch. The ICT layers will have logic to understand the input and use appropriate and corresponding outputs – including avatars. The box won’t be on the market for 5 – 10 years.


Overall the event was informative and well-run. The overriding message that came out of every presentation was that Europe has a rapidly ageing population and solutions are needed to try to prevent or delay decline in people’s abilities. Solutions are also required to cope with the ever-increasing care requirements of older people.

The EU-funded pilot projects were interesting in what was being developed but a key question that kept surfacing was how rolling out these potential solutions was going to be funded in a financially challenged world.

Of the projects mentioned, only the GUIDE set-top box had any overt reference to catering for those with visual or physical impairments. To me it seems obvious that if these developments are seriously going to delay any onset of cognitive impairments then those with physical or visual disabilities would want to take advantage of them too. I think more needs to be done to really deliver multi-modal functionality.

Given the stated overlap between the accessibility needs of the older population and those with disabilities it was disappointing to find also that most of the websites referenced above have serious accessibility issues which could prevent disabled users from even reading about what’s happening.

Got something to say?

Have you got something to say about this event or my write-up of it? If so please leave a comment.

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One Response to “Cognitive Support Technology for Older People”

  1. From: Luke McDonald on March 22nd, 2013 at 5:20 am

    Great review, the ageing population is obviously happening all over the globe, a lot of the research is very interesting and really the fundamentals of healthy living for any age come through in the research that being, social interaction, diet and exercise. As long as the research translates into new actionable programs then more of the ageing population get to benefit.

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