A pioneering in-house surveillance system could allow vulnerable elderly people living alone to remain in their homes.

It is a wonder that Margaret Langhorn hasn’t become paranoid. When she opens her fridge, a computer is watching. So, too, when she sits in her chair, gets into bed, has a bath, leaves the house, or even goes to the toilet. And what’s more, if the computer thinks something is amiss, then it will call a central control room and report her.

It sounds like some Orwellian nightmare, but the 73 year old volunteered to be on the scheme. It is called Telecare and is Liverpool Council’s latest initiative for the elderly. It aims to give pensioners the freedom to stay at home, while offering the sort of 24/7 monitoring that might previously only have been available within residential care.

Langhorn’s house has been fitted with a wireless network of sensors that monitor her as she opens doors and windows and moves from room to room. There are also sensors on some household appliances such as the fridge. They each report back to a PC that sits under the stairs and learns her daily routine. If the PC detects something out of character, such as her not getting out of bed, it triggers an automated phone message to ask her if she is alright. If she is, she dials 1 on the keypad and that’s the end of it. But if she fails to answer or doesn’t dial 1, then the PC uses its broadband connection to alert an operator, who uses a secure web browser to examine the conditions on Langhorn’s PC that triggered the alarm, and decides the appropriate response.

Liverpool has six homes on the scheme and four are to be added. Barbara Frost, an occupational therapist, explains how Langhorn qualified to be in the first wave. “The client has to have a relative or close friend living nearby who can be sent round when the computer generates an alert. The client also can’t have certain types of radio equipment. And they can’t have a big dog!” (A dog would throw the sensors.)

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