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Motion Sensors Offer Independent Living For Seniors

January 24, 2009

After a series of hospital visits for congestive heart failure, 86-year-old Eva Olweean believed she was finally back to good health. But one of the tiny sensors throughout Olweean’s retirement home apartment showed otherwise.

The sensors hang unobtrusively in Olweean’s toilet, shower, doorways and in her bed to monitor her movements. Pneumatic tubes placed in Olweean’s mattress and beneath her easy chair measure weight shifts.  The data is then relayed to caregivers and researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who study and interpret the information, noting any changes that could signal medical problems.

In this case, the data from Olweean’s bed sensor detected multiple restless nights.

Well aware of the coming “silver tsunami” of the baby boom generation, technology firms are racing to help aging Americans spend more time living independently and avoiding nursing homes.

Earlier this month, the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas featured for the first time ever a special area devoted exclusively to high-tech senior living. The motion sensors used by Olweean’s caregivers were among many advances displayed at the show.

Olweean had been experiencing extreme bloating, a common symptom of congestive heart failure, and her cardiologist prescribed diuretics and adjusted her medication to help her resume sound sleeping.

“We try to identify when those small problems occur, so we can fix them before they become big problems,” Marjorie Skubic, an electrical and computer engineering professor who works with Sinclair School of Nursing researchers on the aging-in-place project, told the Associated Press.

At Oatfield Estates, a private retirement home in Milwaukie, Ore., a suburb of Portland, movements of residents are monitored by what employees call “bed bugs”.  These embedded motion sensors detect when someone’s behavior might trigger a medical alert.

Jason Hess, CEO of Elite Care, the Portland company that owns Oatfield Estates, said sensors like those, along with “smart carpets” and other tracking devices, will be commonplace in both private homes and group settings within the next ten years, particularly as insurers embrace the true benefits of the cost-saving devices.

“You will see a lot more places implementing these,” he told the AP.

“It comes down to cost, and out-of-the-box thinking.”

Indeed, talking pill boxes that remind patients to take their medicine at regular intervals, and which can notify out-of-town family members and caregivers if a pill was missed, were among the many products on display at this year’s CES.  There were even robotic companion pets that replicate the real thing for lonely seniors in need of a emotional boost.

“We’re talking about an important paradigm shift in how we think about aging,” Majd Alwan, director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies, told the Associated Press.

Alwan led a CES panel discussion on smart-home technology, and said postponing institutionalization by a year or longer provides a substantial cost savings.

“Let alone the benefits in quality of life for the senior and for the caregiver,” he said.

Alwan previously led the eldercare technology unit of the University of Virginia’s Medical Automation Research Center, which developed the passive sensor technology used by Olweean.

An added benefit of the sensors is that, unlike traditional medical warning badges, the sensors do not depend upon the cooperation of patients.   This is particularly helpful for the elderly, who can sometimes forget the badges when dressing or who might resist the devices as too intrusive, said Marilyn Rantz, a University of Missouri nursing professor.

“Our intent with this project was to incorporate (it) into their daily lives – and make it invisible to their daily lives,” she told the Associated Press.

Olweean, a retired factory worker, told the AP she hardly notices the devices.

“I don’t even know they’re here half the time,” she said.

Fifteen of the 35 residents at Rantz’s apartment complex are participating the motion sensor research project. The university owns the complex, named Tiger Place after its mascot, although a private company manages the facility.

The university’s researchers are also perfecting a more advanced system using virtual-reality silhouette images to allow the sensors to detect changes in gait, posture and other movements.

The silhouettes are considered superior to more invasive video cameras.  Alwan, Rantz and other experts admit that rapid technological advances in senior care must be balanced with privacy protections. It’s a conundrum that also worries Fredda Vladeck, executive director of the United Hospital Fund’s Aging in Place Initiative.

“Technology does have a role to play,” she told the AP.

“It’s a tool, not the answer.”

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