A sophisticated depth sensor hanging over the front door of an elderly couple’s home in eastern South Dakota tracks their walking speed and even recognizes if either falls. Inside the home, infrared motion sensors monitor the couple as they move from room to room. Even their mattress is fitted with sensors — one on each side of the bed — that monitor their heart rates and sleep patterns at night.
At ages 93 and 96, the pair are still healthy enough to live independently. But their daughter, Dr. Marjorie Skubic, lives a nine-hour drive away in Missouri and had always worried about them. Were they going about their day as usual? Were they sleeping well? Getting enough exercise?
In the seven months since their home has been equipped with all those sensors, however, Skubic worries a lot less. She knows that if there’s a fall or some worrisome change in her parents' behavior, she’ll get an email alert.
Peace of mind for family members is just one benefit of the sorts of devices used in Skubic’s parents’ home. More important is this: more and more seniors — even those with health problems ranging from frailty and limited mobility to loneliness and mild cognitive problems — will be able to live independently for longer as a result of sensors and other digital devices.
Sensors will also eventually be able to take better care of seniors by enabling homes to take care of their own infrastructure, notifying occupants or even calling a family member or repair person when a faucet drips, a bulb goes dark, or a ceiling-mounted smoke alarm needs a fresh battery.
At the same time, digital “personal assistant” devices — like Amazon’s Alexa — will become more integrated into the home and thus more useful. Alexa can already store grocery lists, but someday it or something like it might, for example, monitor milk consumption in the home and order more to be delivered just before the carton is empty.
And virtual reality (VR) systems, which are popular mostly with gamers, are now being adapted just for seniors. New systems enable them to take virtual vacations and make nostalgic visits back to places they used to visit without being overwhelmed by buttons.
“Technology has enabled us to live longer,” says Dr. Joseph Coughlin, founding director of the Age Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. “We researchers are now making it a priority to ensure that technology helps us all live longer, better.”
Spotting Trouble Before It Happens
Skubic’s parents are early adopters of sensor technology because she directs the Center for Elder Care and Rehabilitation Technology at the University of Missouri in Columbia and is a national leader in the development of household sensors. Skubic is using data from their home as part of her research.
Her computerized systems, now used in a growing number of assisted living facilities across the U.S. — and eventually, she hopes, in more private residences — can do more than track motion. They use a sophisticated algorithm to identify an unsteady gait, nighttime restlessness, or other subtle changes in behavior that might be evidence of a developing health condition.
The sensors are unobtrusive — in the case of her parents’ home, they’re mounted in little white boxes in corners of rooms — and their output is continuously analyzed by computers running in her parents home and at the University of Missouri. When they detect anything suspicious, they trigger those emails to Skubic.
Skubic’s mom says she barely notices the sensors. And she isn’t particularly worried about losing her privacy by being tracked in her own house.“If somebody can make use of this information,” she says, “it’s worth it.”
The sensors showed that Skubic’s mother’s walking speed had slowed slightly following a recent stint in the hospital; her father spends a lot of time out of bed at night. Skubic shared the information with her parents, though in these cases no corrective action was required.
Data suggest that the sensors can predict falls up to three weeks before they happen. That gives family members and caregivers time to intervene, perhaps by taking with doctors about an adjustment to medication or adding physical therapy sessions, according to Skubic’s research collaborator Dr. Marilyn Rantz.
“There’s so much revealed in way we walk — in the gait speed, the step time, the step length — about how we’re feeling and how our chronic illnesses are,” says Rantz, whose own mother died some months after a fall that left her stranded on the floor for eight hours. “The system automatically detects that ‘I’ve changed and I need to have somebody take a look at me.”
Sensor technology, Rantz says, can help people safely stay in their homes for two full years longer than they would be able to otherwise.
Sensors may make it possible to track movements within and around homes, but, of course, they do nothing to improve the mobility of seniors. Arthritis, balance problems, and other medical conditions can make getting around especially difficult for seniors living in multi-floor homes.