Trip down memory lane keeps care home residents active


A new device connects exercise machines with Google Street View to allow elderly people with limited mobility to revisit places from their childhood or enjoy a virtual day out

Up and running

A new device designed to take nursing home residents on a nostalgic virtual journey to familiar places has been shortlisted to win a European award for internet innovation.

The Activ84Health Explorer was designed by Flemish brothers Roel and Jan Smolders and enables older people who can no longer get out and about to cycle or walk on indoor exercise machines while watching their “outdoor” trip on a big screen.

The interactive program allows people to visit their home towns and favourite locations using a new app mixed with existing Google Street View technology, which shows 360-degree images of millions of streets around the world. 

A sensor connects the motion of the exercise machine with what’s happening on the screen so the user can control their own trip, choosing which places to visit, what direction to go at each junction, how fast to travel and what to stop and look at. For clients with dementia or physical limitations, pre-set routes can be loaded or the journey taken by virtual taxi.

Shared experience

It can also be a shared experience, with residents sitting together and taking a group trip to the coast, the countryside or cities like Antwerp and Brussels.

“Usually people go to the local streets they know. It encourages story-telling and reminiscences – they tell each other ‘I used to work there, I went to school there’,” says Roel. “I’ve seen people sitting on a bike, pedalling and talking for 40 minutes without stopping. They’re so caught up in the experience, they don’t even notice how long they’ve been cycling.”

They’re so caught up in the experience they don’t even notice how long they’ve been cycling

- Roel Smolders

Memories are very important for older people and are usually linked to location, he explains. “We have a video clip of a lady ‘cycling’ past her old house. She tells the story of how she lived there with her elderly father, and she is really emotional. She wells up as she starts talking about her dad, the house, the flowers they had on the windowsill. That’s the essence of this product.”

The idea was born in 2013 when Jan – who is director of the Witte Meren nursing home in Mol – was trying to find ways to keep his residents physically active as well as motivated and stimulated. “The home has a physiotherapy room, but when the clients were on the bike they were just looking at a wall or through a window,” Roel says. “Jan wanted to take them outside again because that’s where their memories are.”

Using Roel’s expertise as a health technology researcher, the brothers teamed up to develop the software. What began as a “hobby project” evolved into a business venture, and the two launched their Activ84Health company, along with two colleagues, at the end of last year.

No limits

The device – comprising a cadence sensor, a tablet loaded with cloud-based software and a tablet holder that attaches to an exercise machine – is already up and running in 10 nursing homes in Flanders, as well as one in the Netherlands.

With Google Street View covering much of the world, there is potential to sell to clients in almost any country, says Roel, who has taken leave from his job at Vito, the Flemish Institute of Technological Research to head the new company. He says the product can be useful for anyone with a limited capacity to travel.

Activ84Health has been shortlisted for the first Active and Assisted Living Challenge prize, which awards €50,000 to the best product or idea that uses internet connectivity and the Internet of Things to empower older people to have more independence and a better quality of life. The winner will be announced at a forum in Switzerland next month.

Photo: Rob Stevens/KU Leuven