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Aging in the City: How Smart Cities Are Improving Accessibility

Two elderly people with the landscape of a city in the backdrop
Illustration: © IoT For All

One of the unsung benefits of smart cities may be their ability to help elderly people age in their own homes. There are many benefits of smart healthcare technology for elderly people. Smart cities can expand that caring technology to encompass a whole city. 

Smart technology can also help make a city more accessible for people of any age and enable them to live independently and make the most of the benefits of city living.

A cityscape with digital text icons above buildings
Image Credit: TripSavvy

An Aging and Urbanizing Population

Many developed countries have an aging population. Ensuring that people can live full, happy, independent lives for as long as possible, while coping with the challenges of an increased aging population, will be one of the most important tasks of the next few years.

In many parts of the world, baby boomers, who left cities for the suburbs when they started families, are now returning to urban centers. Many of the things that make cities appealing to younger generations, such as walkability, easy access to amenities, and opportunities to socialize, are also appealing to an older generation. We have a generation who are retiring while still in good health and many of them are seizing the opportunity to downsize to an apartment in the city.

An older couple stand in a subway train
Image Credit: Travel and Leisure

Cities can be great places to age. Walkable city neighborhoods make it easier to stay active, and medical care is close by if it’s needed. Adaptations to the cityscape, with the help of smart technology, can improve this experience further.

Elizabeth Burton, professor of sustainable building design and wellbeing at Warwick University, says, “There is a recognition now that as people age and their mobility reduces, they may no longer be able to drive, and their world shrinks; it is therefore much better to live closer to amenities in a higher density of people.”

What Are Smart Cities Doing to Help Their Aging Population?

Helsinki, the capital of Finland, has been pioneering many interesting ideas about how to make the city more liveable.

One of their innovations is the mobile GPS app BlindSquare. The app helps blind and visually impaired people to navigate the city by describing their environment, announcing points of interest and street intersections, and giving them directions. It’s easy to see how this type of fantastic innovation could help someone to live an independent, fulfilling life.

Cars on a pedestrian crossing with pedestrians waiting
Image Credit: Freepik

Tilberg, in the Netherlands, has been trialing a scheme where an app gives pedestrians with restricted mobility extra time to navigate pedestrian crossings. A sensor in the smart traffic light monitors the pavement, and if it senses someone with the special app installed, then the timing of the light is adjusted.

Using IoT Applications to Extend the Reach of Healthcare

A keyboard, stethoscope and a cup of tea
Image Credit: Heart Music

Barcelona is one of the world’s leading smart cities in many areas, and its approach to elder care is no exception. Barcelona has introduced several schemes to make life better for its older residents.

In 2014, the city launched an app-based program to combat loneliness and social isolation amongst elderly people. They also proactively check on elderly and disabled citizens by utilizing sensor technology as part of their Telecare service.

Seoul, in South Korea, has a similar smart city initiative with its U-healthcare service, which assists the elderly and disabled by providing medical consultation and telehealth check-ups.

An elderly man and woman look at a smartphone and laugh
Image Credit: Senior Living

How to Make Smart Cities Work for the Elderly

The key to making smart cities work for the elderly is for planners to put themselves in these people’s shoes. Able-bodied city planners don’t always recognize the elements of a city that may be challenging for someone else. Simple things such as uneven sidewalks or a lack of benches can make a city difficult to navigate.

Ideally, elderly and mobility-impaired people would be invited to take part in the planning process to ensure their needs are properly understood and cared for.

Technology Must Be Intuitive

Another key aspect is to ensure that any deployed IoT applications are intuitive and easy to use so they’re invisible. In Tilburg, urban planners struggled to find participants to trial the app, as potential users were wary of new technology. We must ensure the technology is simple to use and not seen as intimidating or complicated.

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