Aging baby boomers have been the driving force behind a trend known as aging in place. The basic idea is simply that seniors want to be able to age safely and gracefully in their own homes, rather than nursing homes or assisted care facilities. Not only is aging in place a more financially viable option for most, it also allows seniors to maintain a sense of independence that can positively affect their overall quality of life.
Over the years, the cost of in-home mobility devices, such as walk-in tubs and stair lifts, have dropped, making aging in place a more realistic option for many people. The next wave of advances in aging in place technology is focused more on incorporating software programs and monitoring device into homes, which will help to increase well-being, provide additional safety nets, and identify any behavioral abnormalities that might indicate a problem.
Research institutions like MIT and the Oregon Center for Aging and Technology (ORCATECH), are leading the way in developing and testing home monitoring devices and software that allows seniors to live more independently. Scientists are venturing outside of their own research labs and creating “living labs” where they can see firsthand how new technology operates in the home. Participating seniors provide helpful feedback about what works and what doesn’t. This type of lab also allows for cross disciplinary collaboration. Medical doctors can use the tools invented by engineers observe the onset of old age and its symptoms over a period of weeks, months, and years. Not only are these human labs helping to produce innovative ways to age in place, they are also providing new insights into the effects of aging.
As part of their ongoing study, researchers have installed various devices in 150 homes around the Portland, Oregon, area and 200 other homes throughout the country that work to collect a variety of information. Motion sensors monitor the speed and frequency of movement throughout the house. They can also track when seniors visit the fridge to make sure they are eating. Pillboxes have also been equipped with monitors to ensure that patients’ are taking their medication properly. Seniors are alerted by the electronic pillbox when they miss a dose and if they do not take their medicine within a two hour window, a relative will be notified via phone or email. In some homes, researchers placed a robot that could be operated remotely by family members around the country who wanted to check-in on or simply “visit” their loved ones. Scientists are looking to find out not only whether this technology actually works to prevent accidents and increase independence, but also whether seniors actually enjoy using these different devices.
Researchers are also using technology to track vital signs and allow patients to receive real time help if there are any abnormalities detected in their information. Wireless blood pressure monitors can feed information to a tablet computer and then notify a health professional of any problems. Caregivers can either make sure seniors receive immediate medical attention or simply give them some tips about how to adjust their blood pressure levels. Band-Aid sized cardiac monitors are also available to provide instant health feedback. These devices can provide seniors, doctors, and other aging specialists with a more comprehensive health profile.
Videoconferencing devices are another popular technology that is already being used in homes across the country and tested in human labs. Often times, monitors are installed in kitchens to help seniors not only socialize with family members, but also be held accountable for eating a healthy diet and taking their medication. Loved ones were able to directly communicate or leave messages with friendly reminders or words of encouragement.
While most of these devices are already available on the market, one product that is scheduled to launch in 2016 is ART or the Assistive Robotic Table. This table can be operated using a remote control and provides a variety of practical functions. It can be raised, lowered, or moved across the room in order to help retrieve items. It can also be extended or adjusted to a certain angle to provide a good surface for reading. Perhaps most importantly, the table’s surface is equipped with sensors that track and record movements over time. This allows the table to establish a pattern of behavior and send out alerts if there are any deviations that could signal patient distress. As with many aging in place technologies, ART is designed to both meet practical needs and increase safety.
One potential drawback of these devices is that seniors will find them intrusive. For the most part, participants in the human lab studies have reported actually enjoying the opportunity to monitor their health and be more proactive about their well-being. The issue of privacy, however, can become more complicated when family dynamics come into play. Seniors may end up feeling patronized or controlled by constant monitoring. That is why it is important for families to establish certain boundaries and make sure that everyone is on board with the aging in place strategy. There can be a fine line between coming across as a caring and concerned loved one and an overbearing presence in your senior’s home and it is important to make sure that aging in place technology is used to increased and not limit a sense of independence.
In the past, the aging in place movement relied heavily on mobility products to allow seniors to safely navigate their homes and increase independence. Today, research and development is more focused on providing technology that can connect seniors to friends, family, and other caregivers without requiring constant, in-person, supervision. Computers and other monitoring devices can provide critical information about seniors’ health and behavior without intruding upon their way of life.