A house that responds to your needs

Senior citizens want – and need – to continue living independently for longer periods of time, even if they have problems such as incipient dementia. Professor Masi Mohammadi of the Department of The Built Environment at Eindhoven University of Technology wondered how her field could help these vulnerable individuals. Can a house become a ‘caregiver’? In order to make this dream come true, she is now testing Artificial Intelligence-led solutions that are integrated into homes in the Dutch housing market and in nursing homes.

People with incipient dementia mainly need help with day-night rhythm, nutrition, and movement. For example, a caregiver assists an individual with dementia at set times with getting dressed, eating, taking medication, and going to bed. “What if a house could take over these tasks from the caregiver, a house that knows you and that responds to your needs?” That’s the question that Mohammadi set out to answer.

A luminous strip shows the way to the kitchen when it’s time to cook and to the bedroom around bedtime. Photo: Toine van Lieshout

As a result, she set up 11 living labs where her research team can test design principles and Artificial Intelligence (AI)-led solutions for older people (with dementia). The researchers go further than just lending a helping hand. They also want to continuously stimulate, motivate, and enthuse the resident so that their dementia does not worsen too quickly. Mohammadi: “The house only intervenes where there are gaps in care.”

Digital fence increases social interaction

One of these living labs is the smart neighborhood in Waalre, near Eindhoven. It will start in 2021. This neighborhood will soon be provided with technological solutions controlled via artificial intelligence. The new neighborhood will, among others, accommodate 80 senior citizens with dementia.

Mohammadi: “What we’re trying to achieve here is a neighborhood where the residents can move freely around. For example, we’re thinking of installing a ‘digital fence’ around the neighborhood whereby sensors send a signal to the caregiver if a resident wanders too far.” In this way, the researchers hope to stimulate social interactions in the neighborhood for this target group so that the senior citizens remain active.

Domesticated technology

Many technical applications are also possible indoors. To evaluate these applications, Mohammadi and her group have built a test house known as the ‘Empathic home’, which is located at an industrial park in Arnhem and is the result of the co-creation of 30 companies. “In this house, we work with an interactive interior design composed mostly of sensors. Through this experimental lab, we want to ‘domesticate’ the technology before we start testing it in our real smart neighborhoods,” Mohammadi explains.

Dinner time. The arrow on the ground lights up and the lights in the kitchen blink. Photo: Masi Mohammadi

So how does this experimental lab look like? As soon as it’s time to start cooking, the house generates a series of sensory signals. For example, luminous arrows on the floor point towards the kitchen, a voice says it’s time to cook, the lights in the kitchen start to blink, there is the smell of the person’s favorite food, and a picture of a plate of food appears on the living room wall. And to simulate the rhythm of day and night, the curtains open automatically in the morning and the lights dim in the evening.

Design choices

Sensors and technical appliances are not Mohammadi’s main goal: “It’s about transformations that promote independently living. A smart design of the building is rather a starting point for this. Think, for example, of the entrance to a nursing home. If this door is not meant to be used by residents with dementia, it isn’t smart to position the door centrally. There’s still a lot to be gained in the wayfinding, as well. Reducing the number of decision moments on the walking route in the nursing home, for example, so that the senior citizen with dementia doesn’t get lost along the way. These are fairly simple design adaptations which can bring about a significant progress in nursing homes.”

In the meantime, ten researchers and PhD students have been appointed to this project and four TU Eindhoven departments are involved in this research program: Departments of Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Mathematics and Information Sciences, and the Center for Wireless Technology Eindhoven. The project is supported by grants from NWO (Dutch Research Council) and Mohammadi works together with other universities and colleges in the Netherlands and abroad. It’s an ongoing process, for example, she has applied for an EU grant together with the aforementioned TU/e departments and the TUs in Munich, Denmark and Japan.

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