Age In Place: With The Latest Tech

Age In Place: With The Latest Tech

For older adults who want to age in place, “There’s no place like home” is more than just a quote from The Wizard of Oz movie. Living securely in their own homes or communities and remaining independent are what many seniors want to do as long as possible.

But, some seniors may face obstacles in achieving this goal. For instance, older adults may find it difficult to manage their daily living activities, especially if they have health challenges or memory problems and do not have a abled-bodied spouse, family members or a caregiver to help them.

As a result, these adults may consider moving—reluctantly—from their familiar surroundings and into an assistant living facility. But before packing up their belongings, experts on aging want seniors to take a look at new technologies and upgraded digital devices designed to keep them in their homes longer.

For instance, there are smartwatches that can monitor vital signs, health-related mobile apps, doorbell cameras, devices that prevent stove fires, and motion sensors that detect falls and notify emergency contacts. As older adults explore these low-technology devices, researchers are experimenting with artificial intelligence that can take in-home technology to the next level.

Sonia Chernova is an expert in interactive computing at Georgia Tech University and the lead principal investigator with the AI Institute for Collaborative Assistance and Responsive Interaction for Networked Groups (AI-Caring). Chernova told Discover Magazine that her AI-Caring team’s focus is to find out how in-home assistive robots, like Stretch, can benefit seniors.

Stretch was developed by Hello Robot, a company based in California that creates assistive mobile manipulator robots that help older adults with cognitive and physical impairments with household chores.

Stretch, a lightweight, compact, wheeled-based robot with a slender telescoping arm, has an extraordinary reach, which is why it was named, “Stretch,” according to Hello Robot CEO Dr. Aaron Edsinger.

Stretch can unload clothes from a dryer and close the dryer door, vacuum a rug, water plants, pick up objects on the floor, and reach and wipe off countertops, among other things. It’s small size allows it to navigate through tight, cluttered spaces.

Now in it’s second phase of development, Stretch’s capabilities will be expanded thanks to a $2.5 million grant awarded in January by the National Institute on Aging, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

“Caregiving is in crisis,” Edsinger said in a news release about the award. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to arrange care for older family members living at home. Robots such as Stretch hold incredible promise to augment the caregiving workforce, allowing loved ones to age-in-place at home for longer.”

Although robots like Stretch aren’t quite ready to move in permanently with seniors just yet, there home sensors that use artificial intelligence (AI) to detect a change in a person’s normal patterns inside their home, Chernova said. The sensors will also send an alert when something changes. For example, when a person who always picks up his or her mail in the afternoon picks up the mail at 3:00 a.m., the AI sensor will note the change and send out an alert.

Since sensors can be programmed to meet the needs of older adults and their caregivers, AI-Caring teams are currently testing what features people would want, Chernova said. For instance, when it comes to taking medication, AI-Caring teams found that people would prefer a medication reminder that would ask, “Have you taken a medication today?” rather than saying, “Don’t forget to take your medication.”

Although it may seem like a minor distinction, Chernova says that such details can change how older adults view the whole system.
Not all sensors and digital devices are complicated. According to Chernova, some of the tech tools currently in use include:

  • A standard suite of sensors that can monitor when someone leaves the stove on or doesn’t close the front door, and then notify a caregiver. Sensors can also determine whether a refrigerator hasn’t been opened all day, which could be a sign that someone is not eating.
  • Programmable electronic pill boxes that can make sure older adults are taking the right medications at the right time.
  • Smart scales that can track weight, body fat, pulse and room temperature and provide doctors and caregivers with real-time information and data for researchers.

In addition, remote monitoring systems, such as doorbell cameras, movement sensors, and medical alerts provide apps for caregivers and family members to keep track of older adults’ in-home activity.

Study Uses Tech To Track Older Adults Health Changes

One group of researchers is using information from in-home tech devices to track the health and wellbeing of older adults who are aging in place in their homes.

The Collaborative Aging Research using Technology (CART) is collecting data from older adult participants of different backgrounds and using this information to better understand how their health changes over time.
Researchers will analyze data collected from the CART study and look for patterns or trends related to the daily activities of participants, such as how often do they sleep, how fast do they walk or how often do they move around at home.

The study uses non-intrusive in-home activity sensors and other devices, like electronic pillboxes, wearables, and digital scales, to continuously track participants’ activity in real-time. The devices measure activity, mobility, body composition, socialization and cognition. The system of devices can detect a loss of mobility, decline in cognitive functions or other behavioral changes over time.

“We’re testing if these technologies can identify meaningful changes in activity patterns, which could lead to a loss of independence or health issues that require medical attention,” Rachel Wall, the Veterans Affairs CART study coordinator in Oregon said in a news release. 

The nationwide technology-based study on aging is funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

As technology continues to advance, researchers are developing even more innovative solutions tailored to the meet the needs of older adults who want to maintain their independence. However, experts on aging stress the importance of making sure that older adults, their family members, and caregivers understand how to operate in-home technology and that it is accessible and affordable to all seniors who want to age in place.

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