Young minds turn to some old concerns

July 21, 2000

Scientists and designers are working to develop household products that will make life easier for the elderly

New technology could provide many household appliances to help elderly people maintain their independence and health as long as possible. But many older people are put off by complicated instruction manuals or anything that they feel labels them "disabled".

This is a significant issue in Germany, where the elderly make up 25 per cent of the population. This will grow to 35 per cent by 2030. Yet, thanks to postwar medical advances and generous pensions, old age in Germany is no longer a stigma but a lifestyle.

An interdisciplinary research group called Everyday Technology for Senior Households (Sentha), based at the Technical University of Berlin, is pooling the expertise of medical and communications engineers, sociologists, ergonomists, designers and architects to find out what older people want and need from new technology. They also receive feedback from an advisory council of elderly citizens and white-goods manufacturers.

"The challenge is to get away from products associated with rehabilitation and disabled technology and move towards devices that offer positive life improvement to a growing generation with high spending power and high demands," says Hans-Liudiger Dienel, coordinator of the research group and head of the Centre for Technology at the Technical University of Berlin.

Wolfgang Friesdorf, head of the research group, says: "We want to identify which household tasks and areas present difficulties for older people and analyse them in our interdisciplinary research programme. This exchange provides the basis for optimising existing appliances and developing new products.

"Our goal is to come up with products that will be interesting to people of all ages by adding to the comfort and security of our everyday lives."

Each of the seven disciplines in the project, which is funded for six years by the German Research Council (DFG) with over E3.07 million (Pounds 1.8 million), is contributing to this overall aim. Communications engineers at Cottbus University are developing a "smart home", in which a home communication network is controlled via the television. The TV remote control would operate the central heating, burglar alarm, open and shut windows, turn on the washing machine, video television and would include an emergency call button.

Sociologists at the Berlin Institute of Social Research and the German Centre for the Research on Ageing at Heidelberg University are researching ways to help older people maintain an independent lifestyle and encourage acceptance of technological aids.

The Institute of Ergonomics at the Technical University of Berlin is compiling a range of design and assessment standards to fashion products to the needs of seniors' homes. They want to identify gaps in their daily lives and compare their use of appliances with that of young people. Mechanical engineers at the TU of Berlin are preparing a systematic design process to assist product development, while architects and designers at Berlin University Art School are working on elderly-friendly design concepts.

Sentha is planning to establish a "learning house" in Berlin in close cooperation with industrial partners, which will bring in devices and appliances as industrial funding. The group also plans to found spin-off companies in the next few years.

In the long term, Dienel says, they hope to develop a new industry with a big future. "We are lucky in Europe that this big demographic change is happening sooner than in China or India. We will be able to develop big export opportunities."

Northern Europe leads old-age research and Germany is lucky to have a large manufacturing base to transfer academic expertise, he says.

Jennie Brookman

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