Northern Ireland

Dundalk cigarette factory now 'living lab'

"I keep thinking I'm going to bump into something," I mutter. "But there's nothing there."

"Yeah, we get that a lot," says Brian, my guide in this somewhat confusing world.

We're in a 3D 'cave' tucked away inside the former Carroll's factory in Dundalk.

This building, with its 1970's architecture and strange, utilitarian beauty, now forms part of the sprawling 90-acre campus of Dundalk Institute of Technology, known as DKIT.

Once, it was cigarettes that were produced here, now it's ideas - ideas about how, as a society, we deal with the challenges of an ageing population.

It would be hard to think of a neater illustration of our changing world, cigs and such 'out'; living longer 'in'.

The purpose of the 'cave' and its "immersive virtual reality" is to help the team develop the perfect living environment for older people and to monitor and study those who have already made the move from the virtual to the actual.

Twenty older people are currently living in 16 purpose-built apartments in the centre of Dundalk, apartments designed in the 'cave'.

All this is part of a 'living lab' project being run by two organisations - the Netwell Centre and CASALA - both based in DKIT.

Rod Bond is the man in charge and widely regarded as one of Europe's leading experts when it comes to ageing populations and how best to cope with them.

"We really have to start thinking of older people as being a huge success of improvements in public health and improvements in education so we are living longer," he said.

"And it's a huge opportunity to really build on that bounty of ageing as opposed to thinking of it as a problem.

"I think that's a mindset change that we have to do, to try and rethink how we look at older people and how older people can participate and engage in society going forward."

The living lab's mission is neatly summed up by the slogan emblazoned across a huge banner as you enter the O'Carroll Building - Longer Living in Smarter Places.

And the Dundalk apartments are indeed smarter places: Got the window open and the rain comes on? Don't worry, it'll shut automatically. In bed and need to go to the bathroom?

Pressure sensors will detect you rising from the bed and put the lights on; dim by the bed, getting brighter the nearer you get to the bathroom.

Andrew MacFarlane from CASALA showed me round.

"We have 2,500 sensors throughout this building," he said. "We utilise these as a research living environment to understand and learn more about older people as they live, then to develop new technologies.

"It's part of our 'living lab' infrastructure, but our residents are very much part of that.

"They're co-designers with us in the development of new technologies and new infrastructure that we can introduce into homes.

"The idea would be that we could take these technologies being developed here and retro-fit them into existing older people's homes.

"It's vital. Our public services, and our private services, will not be able to continue to manage the level of service required by our ageing demographic, so therefore there's a requirement for new types of ways of delivering services and managing services in the home; and also for the older person themselves to manage their own care a lot more as they choose to live independently in their own homes."