What helps as we age? Smart homes and chats
Four hundred people celebrated their 65th birthdays this week. Another 400 will celebrate it next week. In fact, Ireland will be home to nearly one million people aged over 65 years of age by 2031.
In parallel to the growth in the size of the ageing population has come an increased investment in technology and the supporting services to allow more people to age well at home.
At Dundalk's 16-unit Great Northern Haven facility - a flagship concept when it comes to assisted technology - elderly residents can avail of practical additions such as switches to raise and lower window blinds, worktops and sink heights can be changed and the ovens can be voice activated.
There are wellness apps for iPads, blood pressure monitors whose data can be filed electronically and the bedrooms have sensors.
If there is an abrupt movement, such as in the case of a fall, or if you are too long in the living room late at night, an alert can be sent for someone to check on you.
But is that enough?
The drive to merge benefits from technology with the need for human contact is behind a newly formed alliance between the charity Alone and Netwell Casala, the centre for ageing research based at Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT) and the main driver of the Great Northern Haven facility.
"We use technology to drive human contact and not to replace it. With us, everything is underpinned by staff, volunteers, family and we are activating the community," explained Seán Moynihan chief executive officer of Alone, the organisation which supports people who want to age at home.
Alone has recently taken over the running of the many social programmes that came out of the early work done, including the key research work done by Netwell Casala, which contributed to Louth being designated the first Age Friendly county in Ireland in 2008.
A model of best practice
Now 10 years old, Great Northern Haven has become a model of best practice of assisted living for older people. Part of its success is its location, says Rodd Bond, director of Netwell Casala.
"It was a brownfield site in an urban context, so it is close to things - and being close to things matters," says Rodd, who is also an architect.
It is beside a HSE primary care centre and not on the edge of town or away from the bustle of everyday life.
The genesis of the development was "a one pager" by then director of DkIT Tom Collins on 'Ageing and Technology'.
With the backing of the Louth county manager and support of the health board, it was born. It was different and attracted funding from Atlantic Philanthropies.
Significantly, the project has taken ageing, health and the well-being of older people "outside of just the HSE but looking at social infrastructure, too," Rodd explains.
It is the first of its kind in Ireland and while there were other smart houses in Europe, they had been predominantly built to showcase the technology in them."This was very much about bringing the person into the centre of the thinking," he adds.
For him, the scaling of this is about replication and not making it larger.
Support to end of life
"You can support somebody with higher levels of frailty for longer in a place like this so you can certainly delay going into a nursing home or delay going into hospital and (if you do), you have a better environment to come back into.
"For us, success is people being able to live here until end of life. We have had three clients who have lived until end of life here, which is fantastic. It is their home."
Louth has become one of 33 places around the world that meet the criteria of the World Health Organisation's age-friendly cities network.
Its commitment to being age-friendly has not waned: Joan Martin, chief executive of Louth County Council was last week elected vice-president of the EU's Covenant on Demographic Change which is a European-wide commitment to development of an action plan on age-friendly environments based on the WHO's Global Age-Friendly Cities: A Guide. Seán Moynihan says "if you provide housing for older people long-term, you should also be providing some element of support."
He adds that there are other options to a nursing home for an older person where "maybe your physical health isn't as good as it used to be, maybe you are isolated and lonely; you can go into other types of housing in your community where we provide the supports.
"You will still have your own front door, you still have your own social space, still have all of the levels of autonomy and empowerment but ultimately there are people trained and able to support and allow you to live there, and it probably costs one fifth or one sixth of nursing home space."
The same determination from Louth County Council, the then health board and DkIT that saw the development of Great Northern Haven has also been behind a number of social programmes which provide the sort of supports that Seán talks about, and is now delivering in Louth as a result of the alliance with Netwell.
"Alone provides befriending services and support which can be one-to-one with volunteers, phone services, events and social activities; it is about keeping people linked in, it keeps them active and it is preventative because isolation and loneliness will shorten your life."
They also use technology to benefit older people.
"We have very strong management systems that record older people's needs and assessments so is very much 'outcome focused' on how we can support them to live at home and age well and get quality of life."
The management systems are on mobile devices and online so individual plans are drawn up and the information on the bespoke support plan can be made available on an app for volunteers, families and friends, and for the older person as well.
The practical advantage is, for example, where the adult child lives in Co Clare and their parent is in Dublin. "What we can do is put assistive technology into the home, for example, sensors in a couple of chairs, movement sensors in the walls, so if their mam did not get up in the morning, we would know about it, you'd know to make the call and check in," Seán explains.
"You know the way they say it takes a village to raise a child, in some ways it takes a community to help people age at home, and what we can do is put all those connections back together."
"All the different agencies, all the different communities, friends, family, neighbours, we can pull everybody together so if the older person needs a hand, we are there. The main thing is the older person can stay empowered, in control, at home where they want to be."