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.
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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.
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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.
But researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta are working to solve that problem. Under the leadership of Dr. Karen Liu, a professor of interactive computing, they’re developing a staircase that reduces the effort needed to climb it. Liu says she took up the challenge to develop such a system after her 70-year-old mother complained about climbing stairs.
As you can see in this video, Liu's prototype staircase uses springs to capture and store some of the energy a person expends walking down the stairs and returns it to them on the way back via an under-the-foot boost. The team's device would rest on top of each tread in the staircase, reducing the energy needed to climb each step by an estimated 37 percent.
The group believes its system will be easier to use — and cheaper to install — than an elevator or seated stair climber. And because it doesn’t remove all the effort required to climb stairs, it should help people maintain some level of fitness. Dr. Lena Ting, a professor of biomedical engineering at both Georgia Tech and Emory University and a collaborator on the project, says physical exertion of this sort is “really important for people to maintain their health and live independently.”
Virtual Reality vs. Isolation
New gadgets will also help combat isolation and loneliness, which are among the biggest problems facing seniors. Isolation and loneliness have been shown to compound health problems — even cause them. In fact, one 2015 study showed that feeling lonely causes as many premature deaths in people over 65 as smoking or being morbidly obese.
A tiny Boston-based company called Rendever is betting that virtual reality may offer one solution to the isolation problem. It’s recording 360-degree video of tourist attractions around the world and developing easy-to-use virtual reality systems.
Company cofounder Kyle Rand says the videos can remind users of places they visited when they were younger and take them on virtual “group tours” of places they’ve always wanted to go. Users of Randever’s systems — which are already in assisted-living facilities across New England — have ridden Mardi Gras floats, trekked across the Sahara, and returned to quaint New England towns they haven’t visited in years. “Reactions are just like magic,” Rand says of the seniors who have tried the system.
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The number of videos Randever offers is limited at this point, but Rand hopes eventually to shoot every major cultural site and event in the world, enabling seniors to take virtual trips just about anywhere they want to go.
And VR makes it possible to enjoy the jaunts with others using VR gear — whether they’re in the same room or on the other side of the country. All the participants can talk to one another as they explore the virtual world.