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High-tech sensors help seniors live independently

Alan Scher Zagier

COLUMBIA, Mo. — After back-to-back hospital visits for congestive heart failure, Eva Olweean figured her health was back to normal. But the nurses at her retirement home knew better: Motion sensors in the 86-year-old’s bed detected too many restless nights.

Tiny sensors hover unobtrusively over the toilet, shower and doorways to detect Olweean’s movements inside her apartment. Pneumatic tubes tucked in the mattress and beneath her easy chair measure weight shifts. Caregivers and researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia study the data, noting changes in behavior that could signal medical problems.

Recognizing the coming “silver tsunami” of graying baby boomers, tech companies are racing to help aging Americans spend more time living independently instead of in nursing homes. For the first time earlier this month, the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas featured a special section devoted to high-tech senior living.

Among the advances at the show were motion sensors, the kind that allowed Olweean’s nurses to figure out what was keeping her up at night. She was experiencing excessive bloating, a common symptom of congestive heart failure. So Olweean’s cardiologist prescribed diuretics and made other adjustments to her medication that helped the woman sleep soundly again.

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

At Oatfield Estates outside Portland, Ore., resident movements in the private retirement home are tracked by what employees call “bed bugs” — embedded motion sensors that detect when someone’s behavior could trigger a medical alert.

Sensors like those, “smart carpets” and other tracking devices will be the norm in both private homes and group settings within the next decade, said Jason Hess, chief executive officer of Elite Care, the company that owns Oatfield Estates. He said that will especially be true as insurers start embracing the cost-saving devices.

“You will see a lot more places implementing these,” he said. “It comes down to cost, and out-of-the-box thinking.”

At the Las Vegas show, on display were talking pill boxes that remind seniors to take their medicine at regular intervals, and which can notify out-of-town caregivers if that doesn’t happen. There were robotic companion pets that mimic the real thing for lonely seniors in need of a psychological boost.

“We’re talking about an important paradigm shift in how we think about aging,” said Majd Alwan, director of the Washington-based Center for Aging Services Technologies. Alwan led a panel discussion on smart-home technology at the Las Vegas event.

Delaying institutionalization by a year or more is a significant financial savings, he added, “let alone the benefits in quality of life for the senior and for the caregiver.”

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

Unlike medical warning badges worn by seniors, the motion sensors’ success doesn’t depend on the cooperation of patients. Elderly people can be prone to forget the badges when dressing, or resist the devices as too obtrusive, said University of Missouri nursing professor Marilyn Rantz.

“Our intent with this project was to incorporate [it] into their daily lives — and make it invisible to their daily lives,” she said.

Olweean, a retired factory worker, said she barely notices the sensors.

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

Fifteen of the 35 residents at her apartment complex take part in the motion sensor research project. The complex is named Tiger Place after the University of Missouri mascot and is owned by the university, though managed by a private company.

Researchers are also fine-tuning a more advanced monitoring system using virtual-reality silhouette images to allow observation of posture, gait and other movements. The silhouettes are considered a preferred alternative to more invasive video cameras.

Rantz, Alwan and other experts acknowledge that rapid technological advances in elder care must be balanced with privacy protections. That dilemma concerns Fredda Vladeck, executive director of the United Hospital Fund’s Aging in Place Initiative.

“Technology does have a role to play,” she said. “It’s a tool, not the answer.”

(Associated Press)