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Making Aging in Place Easier with Digital Health Technology

A common worry of the elderly as physical and mental abilities start to decline with age is that they will no longer be able to be self-sufficient. Moreover, the responsibility of the “sandwich generation” to take care of aging parents has led to the need for better systems and processes for helping seniors. Solutions enabling seniors to live independently into their golden years are becoming a social necessity.

If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one a professional risk assessment can help to establish if a person is still safe to live alone. Fortunately, these days there are numerous gadgets, digital tools and communication devices available to help manage the risks associated with senior living. We live in the era when moving into an assisted-living facility or a nursing home is no longer inevitable, and “aging in place” is now a feasible option even for those experiencing health deterioration. With some careful planning, technological creativity and family and professional support, elderly individuals can continue to live in their own homes into the autumn of life safely and comfortably.

Wireless Fall Detectors

Falls represent a big concern for many seniors, their families and their caregivers. Up until now, a person at risk of falling had to wear a pendant alarm and press a button if a tumble happened, alerting a central service center that they were in need of help.

This system has shortcomings, including many elderly people not wearing the device or not being able to push the button when the fall occurred because of immobilization.

Fortunately, there are now more advanced options available that automatically detect when a person has fallen and alert emergency services automatically.

University of Utah electrical engineers Brad Mager and Neal Patwari designed an alternative solution that works as a wireless fall-detection system. Their idea is that a person’s environment can detect a fall and send out an alert if an incident occurs. Their innovative system is based on a set of sensors that are designed to detect different radio frequencies corresponding to someone’s position in the room. The system can build a 3D image of a person—a technique known as radio tomography—and detect if a person is either standing, sitting or lying down.

Another solution has been proposed by Dr. Francois Charpillet and his team. Charpillet, who is the director of research at the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control in France, has been working on a fall detection system that would use smart tiles. The novel system, concealed under intelligent tiles, uses a combination of force sensors and three-axis accelerometers. It has already been tested and has shown good potential for use with elderly people living independently.

However, a study conducted by Nolwenn Lapierre from the University of Montreal showed that modern fall detection devices might be less efficient than first hoped. New digital devices are rarely tested in real-life settings with elderly people. The positive results often apply to controlled environments, such as labs.  Lapierre’s team suggests that more testing might be required before these devices can be full-heartedly recommended to the general public.

New GPS Assistive Technology

Cognitive deterioration can make a person’s world a hazardous place, causing a great deal of anxiety for everyone involved.

Wandering and disorientation is a common problem for people with memory impairments, and according to Alzheimer’s Association six out of 10 people with dementia wander and put themselves at risk of injury or death.

GPS Smartsole is an invention that came out in 2015 and can be fitted inside a person’s shoe, making his or her whereabouts trackable. This discrete device connects to a mobile app and website, so that family members and/or caregivers can easily locate the wandering person. Moreover, it is possible to set a perimeter with the system, and if a person walks outside that area an alert is sent.

Freedom GPS locator, designed by Bluewater Security, is aimed specifically at adults with dementia. It is worn as a watch and lets family members monitor their loved ones without being too intrusive. The device also includes a panic button that can be used by the wearer to alert help to come and assist if one gets lost. A special feature of the device is its ability to provide the exact address of the user anywhere in the world, making it easy to locate a person. Other biomechanical devices that can capture movement have also been studied. These devices can either count the number of steps made by a person with dementia or they measure locomotion in three-dimensional spaces. A review published in the International Journal of Gerontology found that StepWatch sensor was particularly effective in tracking older people’s wandering behavior.

Smart Home Technologies for Seniors

Telecare—remote care that assists the elderly and those physically compromised—often uses various sensors and digital networks to increase the safety of one’s home. Smart homes, incorporating different smart technologies and sensors, are generally considered useful and effective and can make an elderly person’s existence a lot safer. Telecare includes various wired and wireless systems, as well as “smart” appliances such as stoves and ovens that have automated safety controls, bedroom monitors, automatic lighting systems, video and activity monitoring and emergency alarms. Many research labs have been investing in smart home technology, and there are projects underway both in the United States and European Union to continue the evolution of this technology.

Some monitoring systems can now already be reproduced on a smartphone, reducing the cost of the infrastructure.  Mobile phones can support different forms of monitoring technology that has been validated on older people. Gait and balance tests, as well as activity monitoring and recognition, have already been investigated using a phone. In a 2017 review of activity trackers for seniors, Salvatore Tedesco, John Barton and Brendan O’Flynn of Ireland’s Tyndall National Institute, also suggest that smartphones could be used as a tool to encourage activity in the elderly population, enhancing awareness and motivation to engage in an active lifestyle.

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