Computers help solve the challenges of aging

SEATTLE – A Washington State University research team is conducting a study using technology that may someday help senior citizens stay in their homes longer.
Led by Diane Cook, Huie-Rogers chair and professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe, professor in the Department of Psychology, the researchers will study approximately 10-20 residents of Horizon House, a Seattle-based retirement community, for three years as part of a pilot project to develop better aging-in-place technologies.
The project, which gets under way this week, is one of the largest studies ever done on the use of such technologies. It is supported by the Washington State Life Sciences Discovery Fund as well as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
Researchers will install 30-40 sensors in each volunteer’s apartment, including motion, door, power metering and temperature sensors. Motion detectors will make up the majority of the sensors and will monitor residents’ activities as they move from room to room in their apartments. Data will be collected continuously.
Half of the study participants have mild cognitive problems and the other half are healthy.
As the U.S. population becomes older, using technology to address the challenges of aging is of increasing interest to everyone from elderly residents themselves to care providers and government leaders.
Allowing the elderly to stay in their homes not only keeps them happier, but it also saves money. Just keeping someone in their home for an additional few months can save tremendously on assisted living costs that average $70,000 per year, said Schmitter-Edgecombe.
An increasing number of families know the stress of trying to deal with an elderly parent or spouse who is losing his or her ability to live independently.
 “It’s a tragedy when a crisis comes up that families didn’t plan for or anticipate,’’ said Lee Burnside, medical director of Horizon House. “It’s very difficult for everyone, and our hope is that the stress can somehow be eased a bit. This kind of situation touches everyone.’’
There are a few technologies that can help with the challenges of aging, such as wearable buttons that people can activate if they fall.
Regarding clinical treatments for people with mild cognitive problems, “there are no gold standards of care out there,’’ said Schmitter-Edgecombe.
The researchers are hoping to find patterns in the data that will help them discern and quantify changes in residents’ health or possible decline. The sensors will amass vast amounts of data throughout the day on each resident’s daily activities, such as brushing their teeth or cooking dinner.
By having good information on these important activities that make it possible for people to live independently, the researchers hope to help caregivers better quantify and discern any changes that might indicate that people are losing their ability to function on their own. They will be comparing the information collected from the sensors with the typical medical assessments that are done to track declines.
The researchers also hope to develop computerized prompts for residents, reminding them of important activities that could help them live in their homes longer.
Residents are eager to participate in research that will support their desire to age in place, said Lauri Warfield-Larson, health services officer at Horizon House.
“As care providers, we need to understand what technology can offer as we serve future consumers who will expect to remain in their homes even with decline,’’ she said.
The researchers are hoping that the pilot project at Horizon House leads to a more comprehensive study, which would follow a larger number of elderly residents for a longer period of time.

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