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Barrier-free living: Intelligent solutions for a more independent life in old age

Automation and comfort solutions play a crucial role for people with reduced mobility. Our quality of life in old age depends on how practical and forward-looking we have planned our household. This also relieves the burden on family structures.

Smart homes are often seen as a gimmick. However, automation and comfort solutions play a decisive role – in addition to barrier-free design – for people with limited mobility and older people. After all, the generations are getting older and older, and caring for them is becoming an ever greater challenge.

Good planning and analysis as well as technologies provide support in everyday life and ensure that people can live independently and safely for as long as possible. And they not only relieve the burden on those affected, but also on relatives, who will be increasingly responsible for care and support. These technologies no longer have to be expensive. The main way to save money is to think about future needs when building a new home or renovating an existing one.

SBC editor Lena Schönthaler in conversation with interviewee Gerhard Nussbaum, Technical Director and Deputy Technical Director. Managing Director of the Competence Network Information Technology to Promote the Integration of People with Disabilities (KI-I).

Smart planning starts with the little things

Two findings from the research: Theoretically, we can control our entire environment with today’s developments. We can operate the blinds via app or sensor, and fit windows with a rain sensor to close them automatically when it rains. But we can only find out which solutions are really necessary by analyzing our everyday lives. And: even small things can be a challenge – but also a great help – for people with disabilities.

Being able to live independently and healthily in your own home for as long as possible despite impairments: That is the wish of many. The key to this lies in the precise analysis of everyday life and needs - and the use of smart concepts and technology that are tailored to them. Photocredit: Shutterstock

The requirements for impairments are very individual. Gerhard Nussbaum therefore advises an analysis of usage habits in order to really know the needs of the residents. Intelligent solutions start with the little things: Lighting, for example, is becoming increasingly important, as is the well-considered positioning of sockets.

For people with disabilities, even bending down to insert a plug into the socket can be very uncomfortable or even lead to accidents. Nussbaum: “A practical solution is therefore to place utility sockets in a higher position, ideally below light switches or at a height of 90-120 cm.” This avoids bending down and the sockets are easily accessible for everyone, regardless of height or mobility restrictions.

Sockets should also be strategically placed near the bed in the bedroom. Ideally at least two, to enable the connection of appliances such as electric beds – if they need to be used – as the expert points out.

Wireless and smart networking

Another important aspect concerns the type of electrical installation. Conventional installations in which light switches are connected directly to the lighting are often used. This means that a lamp is switched on and off when a switch is pressed. However, this can have disadvantages, especially if extensive remote control is required to adjust or control the environment. Retrofitting with remote-controlled switches can be expensive, as Gerhard Nussbaum explains.

He adds: “With wireless systems such as ‘EnOcean’, light switches can be easily installed anywhere without the need for wiring.” EnOcean not only offers switches, but also motion and activity sensors, for example, which can simply be stuck anywhere.

These motion detectors and intelligent light switches, which already make it possible to automatically adjust the lighting according to requirements and the time of day, not only save energy. The safety aspect should also not be forgotten with increasing age. For example, it makes sense not to go to the toilet at night in complete darkness. Dimmed lighting in the hallway reduces the risk of accidents – and still lets the rest of the house continue to sleep.

In principle, optimum lighting of the environment becomes increasingly important for general well-being with increasing age. The implementation of a holistic lighting concept takes into account factors such as the natural circadian rhythm and age-related visual impairments. The targeted control of light colors and brightness can not only improve comfort and atmosphere, but also take medical aspects into account. A project in Vorarlberg, for example, showed that better illumination with lighting scenarios had the side effect that people needed less medication such as sleeping pills.

Dimmed light in the corridor reduces the risk of accidents at night - Photo credit: Shutterstock/created with AI

KNX: Everything networked everywhere at once

If a new building or extensive renovation is planned, a modern KNX-based electrical installation offers numerous possibilities for optimizing the living environment. KNX is a so-called bus system that is used for data transmission. Already used in industry for decades, KNX is a future-proof technology: Thousands of devices from over 500 manufacturers belong to the KNX Association and are compatible with each other. They can be controlled and automated across the board and seamlessly networked.

This type of installation may require more effort, but many smart home product lines have been withdrawn from the market in recent years. In the worst case, the devices and solutions had to be purchased from scratch. That won’t happen in the case of KNX: These solutions will be around forever. If a product is withdrawn from the market, it can simply be replaced.

A decisive advantage is that adjustments and changes can be made quickly and easily through programming. If, for example, you want to change the function of a light switch or add a switch at a new location, these adjustments can be implemented without any complex conversion work, Gerhard Nussbaum also confirms. Once the installation is complete, there are virtually no limits.

With intelligent wall switches integrated into the system, a wide range of functions can be controlled throughout the home without the need for additional expensive individual devices. This results in an optimized solution for controlling lighting or blinds and other electrical devices without the need for numerous separate switches.

AI is making these systems even smarter: artificial intelligence can turn off the lights and the TV and lower the blinds if we fall asleep in front of the TV. This may sound trivial, but it is essential for people with special needs. In the case of impaired cognitive abilities such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, the entire environment can be supportive to the extent that these people can still live independently and safely despite their limitations. This also relieves the burden on family structures.

Improvement systems for everyone – not just for the elderly

These solutions are not only explicitly designed for older people and those with special disabilities or mobility impairments. For Gerhard Nussbauen, this is the wrong approach, because: This gives the topic of ageing and the associated restrictions a negative connotation. It is therefore time to see these products as “lifestyle products” that are suitable for everyone and raise the general standard of living.

For example, an apartment with a bus system could not only be considered barrier-free, but also meets the requirements of a multimedia apartment that enables modern and comfortable living, Gerhard Nussbaum is firmly convinced. Accessibility is exciting for many other target groups, such as parents traveling with baby carriages.

Conclusion: Out of the negative cast, into comfort

Our living situation and quality of life in old age and with disabilities depend on how practically and proactively we have planned and implemented our household. In other words, the extent to which we have taken the different life cycles into account.

The integration of technology into our everyday lives enables a further increase in quality of life – for those affected, but also for family caregivers. The key to this is a precise analysis of living conditions and usage habits.

What does Gerhard Nussbaum want? That older people and people with disabilities are given more consideration in the development of products. What comes onto the market as a killer feature is often not accessible. For example, there used to be buttons on the washing machine that blind and visually impaired people could easily learn to operate. Today, however, there are touchscreens and displays with a wide range of functions that can no longer be operated by people with visual impairments.

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