The NHS could save “billions of pounds each year” by installing equipment in the homes of older people that allows them to remain mobile and independent, according to a new report.

Research from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (iMechE) suggests that adapting homes to suit the needs older people could prevent the onset of frailty, reducing the risk of hospital visits as a result.

It argues that ‘smart’ technologies like remote monitoring systems, sensors and mobile devices could all contribute to helping older people remain safe in the home, while giving them increased independence.

The report, called Healthy Homes: Accommodating an Ageing Population, claims that physical inactivity costs the NHS £10bn a year, with £2.5bn spent on care as a result of poor housing.

It estimates that allowing vulnerable people to remain in hazardous homes is costs the NHS some £414 million per year in treatment costs alone.

Adaptations made to “assistive” furniture to encourage more physical activity, is one of the solutions put forward by iMechE. For example, instead of a chair that moves a person from a sitting to a standing position with the press of a button, the chair could use just enough force so that the person is encouraged to use their knee muscles to stand.

It also argues that installing more outside lightning, handrails and slip-resistant surfaces in the home could reduce the risk of falls, a primary cause of hospital admissions among the over-65s. The report references a study conducted in New Zealand, which concluded that basic modifications such as these resulted in a 39% reduction in injuries among older people, and thus a 26% drop in the need for medical treatment.

On a more fundamental level, the location and height of home appliances could also be modified to make them more accessible to older people, the report notes. For example, placing appliances, cupboards and plug sockets at eye-level would reduce the need to stoop. Adaptations of this type could be retro-fitted into the home at fairly little cost.

Dr Helen Meese, lead author of the report and member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: “About seven million UK homes are headed by someone aged over 65 years, who will undoubtedly need some form of assistive technology to help with everyday living, within the coming decade.

“Homes built with older people in mind, as well as retrofit technology for our existing housing stock, could not only allow people to live in their homes for longer, but also massively reduce costs for the NHS and social care system.”

A missed opportunity?

The report highlights an opportunity for construction firms and device manufacturers to cash in on this relatively untapped market.

“Contrary to popular belief, our growing ageing population is becoming more tech savvy and this will only increase in the decades to come,” said Meese.

“The ‘Grey Pound’ accounts for over 50% of consumer spending in the UK, which reached £72bn in 2017.

“Yet demand for smart equipment and devices for older people has so far been slow, as many are poorly designed and aesthetically unappealing. Instead of creating products only for older people, manufacturers should focus on creating products that are flexible and span the generations.”

As means of encouraging this, Meese suggested manufacturers and construction firms be required to include older people – such as retired engineers and designers – in product design schemes and national infrastructure projects.

The report concludes by calling on the Government to introduce financial incentives for construction companies to build smart homes, as well as a re-assessment of the Department of Health’s Personalised Health and Care 2020 framework to include a ‘healthy living for life’ technology initiative.

East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust recently began using wearable technology designed to prevent falls in older people.

Speaking to Digital Health News, Janet Morrison, chief executive of Independent Age, said it was essential that housing and planning policy met the care and support needs of the ageing population “both now and in the future.”

She added: “Housing that meets our changing needs as we age is essential if we are to ensure older people are able to live independently in their own homes for as long as possible.

“Building technology and innovation into the design of homes must be done in a way that meets the day-to-day needs of older people, for example by supporting care services at home, which can help reduce the number of people experiencing delays in being discharged from hospital.