Technology is the future of senior care all over the world, especially with the population of senior citizens growing steadily and the lack of caregivers to match this growth. Aging in place, or living at home as one ages, is the goal of most Americans; they do not want to have to leave their familiar surroundings to be taken care of by others. According to a recent survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, Americans 40 years and older are just as worried about losing their independence as they are about losing their memory. Living at home in their golden years allows seniors to live happier lives, and certain technologies are being developed currently to make aging in place possible for more people.
As a person ages, many low-tech precautions are taken, such as installing bars in bathrooms that a person can use to get into and out of the tub, but improving a person’s overall quality of life may mean more high-tech devices. For example, some companies now offer to install motion sensors in the home in various locations, such as the refrigerator, the front door, and a couch or chair where a person spends the most time. These sensors are able to establish a basic routine and, if that routine is interrupted, they send emails to family and friends alerting them to a possible problem, such as a fall.
The University of Missouri is one of the institutions at the forefront of aging in place research and they are developing this type of home monitoring system. If a person is less active during the daytime and the system detects it, this could indicate a health problem ten days to two weeks prior to an accident that might send them to a hospital or doctor. The monitors can also measure respiratory patterns and pulse to determine a person’s heart condition, and this could help expedite treatment.
Marilyn Rantz, a nursing professor and aging in place specialist who leads the research, states that she and her team were amazed by what the system could detect. She compares it to “a vital sign of my physical function.” The research team ran into a problem when they couldn’t distinguish just how slowly or quickly a person walked, so they utilized Microsoft Kinect 3D technology for this purpose. Developed for use in video games, the technology can be easily adapted to recognize a person and their ability to walk.
The new technology has been installed for testing in TigerPlace community, a retirement center affiliated with the university, and in another community in Cedar Falls, IA. Emails are sent to on-site nurses automatically if significant changes are detected in a person’s normal activity. A study conducted on these monitored residents and an unmonitored group found that, after a year, those who were being monitored were functioning better independently than the unmonitored group. Arguably, this could be because nurses were able to intervene sooner as a result of these automatic alerts. The National Institutes of Health, who gave the team a grant that will help place these systems in other senior centers, saw the advantage this monitoring system could have in helping seniors age in place. They also wish to invite participants’ loved ones, with their permission, to receive alerts as well as an on-site nurse. This will determine how well the system works when both a nurse and a family member are alerted to activity changes, which they hope will mean more people can install these systems in their home to age in place longer.
Rantz has a personal connection to this type of research because her mother died soon after suffering a bad accident in her own home. Rantz believes her research can prevent incidents like that from occurring and can get family members involved in their loved ones’ care. One of the biggest differences between this type of monitoring system being developed by Rantz’s team and others is the fact that seniors do not have to wear call buttons around their necks or interact with the technology at all. “When we started this team, I said we are not going to make anybody wear anything or push any buttons, because my mother refused and I don’t think she’s any different than a lot of other people,” Rantz said. Seniors should be given care that is manageable for them and for their caretakers, and this monitoring system can provide that.
Home monitoring systems like this one are going to make a major impact on people’s lives in the years to come, especially on seniors who will be able to age in place because of the advanced care they will receive as a result of these systems. By monitoring a person’s health and activity, researchers and caregivers can assure seniors that they can live a long and happy life in their own homes and with their loved ones.