For many seniors, especially for those who are confined to nursing homes,staying mentally and physically active often depends on the emotional support they receive from friends and family. Certainly research has demonstrated the that older adults with strong social networks often enjoy greater life expectancy, overall good health, and better cognitive functioning than seniors who are socially isolated. If anything, this is a trend that seems to have grown even worse in an era of online digital communication that makes many older people feel left behind.    

While a recent Swiss survey shows that Internet use in adults aged 65 years or older has risen 47 percent from 2009 to 2014, 44 percent of older adults still don't have Internet access, whether due to the expense involved or difficulty learning to use the different technologies involved. The problem is even worse for seniors with visual or cognitive impairments that prevent them from going online without assistance from helpful family members or nursing staff.

But a new innovation developed by a team of researchers led by Francesco Carrino of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland may provide the answer. A recent research study published in the journal GeroPsych describes this system and also demonstrates how well it works. Known as the Tangible Interactive Window (or, simply The Window for short), older adults are able to establish permanent contact with distant relatives without many of the technical difficulties they would usually face.  With the Window,  all of the technology required to go online is kept hidden by making it resemble an actual window.  Users can even activate the system using special controls that resemble the kind of hand crank or glass pane found in a real window.  

According to  idea for the Tangible Interactive Window came from how windows were used to communicate  in medieval and Renaissance cities. Since streets were often narrow, simply opening a window allowed people to interact with their neighbours to exchange pleasantries and pass on news. With the rise of modern telecommunications, a similar experience was developed to allow people to stay in contact over long distances. One of the first uses for the Window allowed research teams in France and Switzerland to connect two rooms in different universities for months at a time. The researchers then developed version that could be used for seniors who might otherwise not be able to use regular communications systems.  

But there have been other systems that have been developed to allow older adults to stay in contact with friends and relatives. The AMCOSOP system, for example, is an all-in-one computerized platform with a touchscreen and an interface specially developed for older adults. While testing is underway, early results are extremely encouraging. Another system, Tlatoque, was developed by a team of Mexican researchers. Using an interactive window, Tlatoque users can generate their own social media content with features such as photo sharing, status updates, and a news feed. As with the AMCOSOP system, research shows that Tlatoque can significantly boost the social contacts of older users.  

To make the Tangible Interactive Window easier to use, researchers built it around a 15 x 24 inch plate of glass set before a screen of equivalent size. A small camera was placed in the middle of the screen to ensure proper eye contact. In every other respect, the window resembles a real window with a movable pane and blinds that can be raised or lowered. The  crank used to raise the blinds controlled the video link while opening the glass activated the audio. When the glass is closed, people can look into the window and see what is happening in the room at the other end of the video link, usually the main room in a house where the user's family lives.   An audio link is only possible when the glass in both Windows is opened and a conversation can take place.   

Since the video connection is permanent, older users don't need to bother with complex menus or additional controls that they might have difficulty navigating. Along with being easier for older adults dealing with dementia issues, the Window is also ideal for users with vision or hearing problems who might otherwise be unable to use a conventional video link.   

In the study described by Carrino and his team, eight participants who were residents of a nursing home in Fribourg, Switzerland were randomly selected to use the Window. Ranging in age from 69 to 100, the participants had a primary education level and rarely used devices such as smartphones, tablets, or computers.  In all cases, the Window was set up for their use and made to resemble the other windows in the nursing home as much as possible.  

All participants were instructed on how to activate the window (knock on the glass to get the attention of the person on the other end, opening the glass to establish audio connection) and were then observed to see how they interacted using the Window. The other end of the Window was set up in a university lab where participants could talk to a former nursing home staff members that all participants knew.

During the five-minute conversation that followed, each participant was rated in terms of how well they could operate the Window, how successful they were at communicating, and whether they recognized the former staff member on the other end.  After each conversation, participants interviewed to determine what their overall impression was of the Window and whether they thought it was something they would like to use to communicate with their own relatives.

Of the eight participants in the study, six were able to communicate effectively.   The remaining two were unable to understand what was happening, whether due to dementia or comprehension problems. Also, the design of the Window required participants to stand during their conversation which was difficult for some of the seniors.  

In the interview that followed, most participants reported that the Window was easy to use a convenient way to stay in contact with distant relatives.  Since  some users it too tiring to be required to stand while using the Window, Francesco Carrino and his team are already working on an improved version that takes this into account.

Though it will likely be some time before communication aids such as the Window become a standard feature in many nursing homes, this kind of technology appears extremely promising in terms of helping seniors feel less isolated. Also, the design of the Window makes it easier to use and understand for seniors who might otherwise be uncomfortable with modern technology. Such a system has obvious uses in helping elderly seniors living alone who have even less chance at communication than they would in a nursing home. The Window can also be redesigned to allow family members to communicate with seniors from their own mobile phones or tablets without needing to use another Window.  

For now, the Window remains just an innovative idea still being tested in laboratories.  But someday, it may literally be a lifesaver for seniors around the world. 

References

Leonardo Angelini, Francesco Carrino et al. Testing the Tangible Interactive Window with Older Adults: Toward an Accessible Video-Communication System to Fight Social Isolation.  GeroPsych (2016), 29, pp. 215-224.

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