Ambient assisted living supporting peoples ability to live safely at home


In March 2012, consumer advocate Patricia Cunniffe represented New Zealand at the inaugural International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Strategy Group meeting on ambient assisted living, which was held in Frankfurt, Germany. Recently, we talked with Patricia about this emerging area of Standards development.

What is 'ambient assisted living' and why is there growing international interest in this area?

Ambient assisted living is an umbrella term that encompasses solutions that allow people to live safely at home. While it has particular application to older people and people with disabilities, it offers undoubted advantages for the population as a whole.

Across the world the social need is very great, and growing to support ageing populations. At the meeting, China reported that each year the number of its elderly increases by 8 million people, creating economic and social strains. In Japan and throughout Europe, a similar situation exists. In other words, New Zealand is not alone in needing to find ways to support people in living safely at home.

While an ageing population and associated healthcare costs are drivers for many countries, there is also recognition of the range of new technologies available that can be harnessed to assist people in their lives.

What are some of the barriers to creating ambient assisted living?

There is a need for a 'joined up' approach to this area of work. Because of the complex interdependencies – from transportation to healthcare to access to technology – solutions will require central government, local government, industry, and non-governmental organisations all working together.

Because of its breadth, establishing best practice has been a challenge. What we tend to see instead are patches of truly excellent work and, at the other end of the spectrum, vast areas where very little is being done. What's missing is consistency and structure – two areas where Standards and standardisation could have an important role to play.

There was also discussion about 'pilotitis' where small projects receive limited funding and are tested, but when the pilot project is completed there's either not a rigorous review process in place or additional funding cannot be secured. Pilot projects are a good first step, but what came of this meeting is that we need to be clear what the next steps will be and how they will be resourced.

Can you discuss ambient assisted living in a New Zealand context?

As I stated in my presentation to the IEC Strategic Group, New Zealand is in a very strong position to add considerable value to the standardisation process, and, more importantly, to gain socially and economically from a coordinated approach to this area of work.

There are real opportunities right now, ranging from how we roll out ultra-fast broadband; to how we rebuild Christchurch; to how we progress in-home monitoring of health-related conditions; to how we prioritise what types of products, communication options, and training programmes we develop.

New Zealand could be a world leader in this area of work in large part due to our size and our ability to move quickly and decisively in solving issues. Some of our service models could easily be adapted to better address this issue and in many areas, such as building houses, we're already incorporating practices that support people in living safely at home.

The crux of this work, however, is the need for a strategic and coordinated response. Because of its new mandate, this area of work might be considered as a flagship project for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment with input from local government, industry, Standards New Zealand, and consumer advocacy groups. To be successful will also require ongoing engagement with the groups of people who we hope to serve.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Ministry of Economic Development [now MBIE] and Standards New Zealand for their support of this work and for making it possible for me to represent New Zealand at the inaugural IEC Strategy Group meeting.

What are the next steps?

Right now I'm meeting with experts across a number of fields to learn more about what is being done in New Zealand and also to determine if there are simple changes we can make in the short term that would better support ambient assisted living. I will be reporting my findings to Standards New Zealand and MBIE.

Within the IEC Strategy Group, various work streams need to be established to identify the various layers of future standardisation work. The next meeting is proposed for 11 – 12 September 2012 in Frankfurt.

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