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26/10/2022

Vall d’Hebron, one of the institutions promoting the ageing-centred Living Lab

Impulsors del Barcelona Aging coLLaboratory (BALL)

26/10/2022

The Barcelona Aging coLLaboratory (BALL) aims to create innovative solutions, with the participation of end users, to improve quality of life and health and social care for the elderly.

Ageing with the best possible quality of life and best health and social care. This is the main objective of the Barcelona Aging coLLaboratory (BALL), the first Living Lab centred on providing innovative solutions for the elderly to be set up in Catalonia, with the backing of a broad representation of civil society.

Today, the Pere Virgili Health Park was the site for the media presentation of the physical headquarters of the BALL and its first project: a humanised robot that will help feed people unable to feed themselves. The robot is being co-created with end users, who are essential to understanding what they need, so as to offer a solution adapted to their demands.

As well as providing patients with a personalised tool and greater autonomy, the robot can be used to automate more complex healthcare logistics tasks in hospital and nursing homes, thus reducing the workload of healthcare staff, while optimising time and quality of service.

The BALL, an innovation platform related to ageing

The age of the Catalan population continues to rise at a rapid rate. By 2050, it is calculated that one in three people will be over 65. In addition, according to data from the Statistical Institute of Catalonia, if the current care model does not change, the dependency rate among the elderly will also rise, from 28.9% in 2021, to 44.3% in 2040.

The Barcelona Aging coLLaboratory (BALL), is a response to the need to develop innovative solutions in progressing towards active and healthy ageing, and consider old age as an opportunity to create a more inclusive society while boosting the economy.

The Living Lab is the work of 10 well known institutions representing the main areas of Catalan society: health (Pere Virgili Health Park and the Vall d’Hebron Research Institute), robotics (Institut de Robòtica i Informàtica Industrial, (Institute of Robotics and Industrial Computer Science), CSIC-UPC), universities (Ramon Llull University, with the Blanquerna Health Sciences Faculty, the Borja Institute of Bioethics, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, (Open University of Catalonia)) social (iSocial Foundation), private enterprise (Efebé Group, Qida and UniversalDoctor) and elderly people’s associations (FATEC).

The project operates in an innovation model known as the quadruple helix, in which different community institutions and members (citizens, businesses, knowledge centres and public authorities) come together to build solutions to promote socioeconomic growth in the region.

According to Dr Marco Inzitari, director of Integrated Care and Research at the Pere Virgili Health Park, head of the Vall d’Hebron Research Institute (VHIR) Ageing, Fragility and Transitions Research Group in Barcelona and professor at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, “The BALL is a co-creation space or methodology that, from the start, involves elderly people in the design, development, implementation and assessment of products and services aimed at facilitating their autonomy, integrating them into the community and reducing their dependencies and chronic conditions.”

Dr Inzitari, one of the designers and promoters of the project, stresses that, “At a time when life expectancy is constantly rising, but not its quality, the end goal of Living Lab is to put people at the centre and let them take control of their health and their lives.”

A robot to improve relational autonomy among the elderly at mealtimes

The software and hardware for the first robot prototype presented today is adapted to help elderly people who have difficulty feeding themselves. Designed by researchers at the Institut de Robòtica i Informàtica Industrial, part of the Laboratori Obert de Robòtica Assistencia (Open Healthcare Robotics Lab, LabORA), and professionals from the Pere i Virgili Health Park, its creation involved all the other institutions in the Living Lab as well. In February, participative sessions with professionals and elderly people receiving care at the Pere Virgili Health Park were held, where the latter explained the needs they thought the robot should meet to make it more human. The contributions helped in developing this prototype.

Patients at the Health Park with different difficulties preventing them from eating autonomously will soon be taking part in the first test run of the prototype humanised robot, to be conducted in a real environment, the hospital, where it will initially be installed.

In this test phase, a group of professionals will carry out interviews with the elderly people to find out how satisfied they are, while also observing their non-verbal reactions during the test close-up. Their answers will be closely considered in the final phase of the project. The robot currently is very simple, but in the future it will be able to recognise facial expressions in elderly people and interact verbally, among other functions.

According to the creators, the robot should contribute to improving relational autonomy in patients during meals, providing greater options for choice (speed, type and quantity of food), a better self-image (increasing self-confidence during meals), and a bigger margin for dialogue (favouring negotiations regarding how and what to eat). Another advantage in using the robot is that healthcare professionals will be able to gather much more data on the current nutritional status of the elderly person, helping improve the personalisation of health and social care and adapting it to each person’s needs and characteristics.

It is also worth noting that serving meals creates a high-pressure situation, due to the degree of dependency among the elderly, more so at such a delicate time due to the increase in the number of people hospitalised with a high degree of dependency and the lack of professionals in nursing homes. According to the director of Integrated Care and Research at the Pere Virgili Health Park, “Our aim with the robot is to be able to provide greater, more personalised care for patients, and reduce stress among healthcare staff.” It should also be stressed that the aim of the project is for the robot to provide support rather than replacing healthcare staff, so it will never be left alone with an elderly person.

Josep Carné, president of the FATEC, a non-profit organisation made up of volunteers, bringing together all the elderly people’s associations in the country, explains that, “Although we were not initially keen on the idea of a robot feeding the elderly, we cannot turn our back on technological progress, especially if its aim is to provide help.” Carné also considers it highly positive that users have a key role in defining the characteristics of the robot.

The BALL offices: the Home for Thought

The physical headquarters of the Living Lab are in the Pere Virgili Health Park itself, which is where the participative actions are conducted. The first brainstorming sessions involving all stakeholders related to ageing (patients, professionals, research institutions, public authorities, private companies, etc.) will help identify challenges in this field. Further sessions will look to find innovative solutions for these challenges and participative dynamics to develop them with end users.

The promoters of the first Living Lab centred on ageing, which is to be officially inaugurated on 17 November, is open to public authorities, institutions and associations, companies and citizens to collect stimulating and ground-breaking suggestions and proposals in the field of ageing.

"The end goal of Living Lab is to put people at the centre and let them take control of their health and their lives”, explains Dr. Marco Inzitari.

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