Technology is always changing and improving, becoming constantly more amazing. But often, the best types of innovations are the ones that use an already existing type of technology in a completely new and unexpected way.
Now researchers are looking at screening people for dementia, depression, and other issues, with their permission of course, using a very surprising piece of technology: the smart meters on their homes that are meant to detect energy use.
A recent report completed by 2020health and commissioned by Smart Energy GB suggests that real-time energy use patterns could indicate certain issues, such as dementia and depression.
Using more energy late at night, for example, could mean that a senior resident of the home is experiencing sundowning, a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease characterized by a tendency to become irritable or antsy late at night.
“It’s so hard to detect the signs when you don’t live with your relatives,” says Arlene Phillips, CBE, who spent time caring for her father with Alzheimer’s. “I found out that my father would often leave the hob (cooktop) on overnight. Not only was this a symptom of Alzheimer’s developing, it was also dangerous. Had this technology been around when I was looking after my father, it would have greatly helped me understand what was happening with him.”
People with depression also have a tendency to either suffer from insomnia and stay up late or sleep more than they did before, either of which could be picked up by a smart meter because it changes their energy usage over time.
Soon, smart meters may be able to send alerts about abnormal energy usage to a loved one, caregiver, or doctor to let them know that something may be amiss. This is particularly important (and at its most effective) for people living alone, and it could reduce the strain of these diseases on the health system if they’re caught early enough.
Of course, obtaining consent from the person living in the home will be of the utmost importance to ensure that the idea is executed as ethically and efficiently as possible.
The implications of this idea are far-reaching. On top of detecting possible cases of dementia and depression, smart meters could also be used to alert family in the event that someone has fallen down and can’t get up or has had some type of medical issue. The technology isn’t advanced enough to get help for someone in a matter of minutes, but it may keep an elderly person who lives alone from spending days suffering on the floor while they wait for someone to find them. It’s an added bit of security for those who are uncomfortable living alone or having their elderly loved ones live alone.
Additionally, smart meters could detect cases of poverty, neglect, and unhealthy living conditions in homes where little to no electricity is used.
“Our aging society indicates a future of much greater healthcare need,” says Julia Manning, director of 2020health and member of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Digital Health Council. “Smart meter technology could prove useful in making it easier and safer for people with conditions, such as dementia, to live independently in their homes for longer, delaying transition to the care home setting and providing peace of mind to family and loved ones.”
A UK survey of 4,000 adults revealed that 81 percent of them would be more comfortable with an elderly or vulnerable loved one living alone if they could be alerted about abnormal behavior so they’d know when to check in on them. 72 percent said they think technology has the power to change how we live and care for ourselves. It’s time to fix this issue, one small innovation at a time.