WSJ: Tech Making Inroads to Help Seniors Age in Place

Researchers are using radar and 3-D technology to prevent elderly people from falling with the hopes of keeping them in their homes longer, a Wall Street Journal article reports. 

Because falling affects one in every three adults age 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, scientists are diving deeper into a quest to design better systems to prevent falls and to get help quickly to elderly people who have fallen. In doing so, they seek to provide more safety and security at home, allowing seniors to stay in their own homes for a longer period of time, a concept known as aging in place. 

Technology currently available to help seniors age in place include wearable alarms and optical devices, but researchers are finding that this technology, which can be intrusive, “has to fit the cultural ethics of the aging population,” Cathy Bodine, professor of bioengineering at the University of Colorado Denver, told the WSJ. “We’re not always taking that into consideration.”  

In order to adapt to seniors’ cultural ethics, some researchers are looking at how radar technology can be applied for assisted living and how to use 3-D sensors, popular in gaming systems, as less intrusive alert systems. 

“Urban radar has been used by the military to find and observe people hidden in buildings from a distance,” the article states. “The goal with the elderly is to detect a fall without disturbing them unless they have just fallen.”

The radar sends and receives electromagnetic waves that reflect off people and objects inside a building with differing frequencies and strengths, the article explains. These waves can then help identify when an elderly person is simply sitting in a chair or tripping or collapsing from a heart attack. 

However, some actions can trigger a “false alarm,” such as an animal jumping or a child playing. To distinguish from these actions, researchers must model what a fall looks like to program the radar system. Scientists use young, healthy people who are trained to walk and fall like seniors, to demonstrate a fall for the system. 

Marjorie Skubic, director of the Center for Eldercare and Rehabilitation Technology at the University of Missouri, and her colleague, nursing professor Marilyn Rantz, have created an alert system that uses a combination of motion sensors, radar and sensors that gather depth information to produce 3-D silhouettes of people, the WSJ reports. 

This alert system has proven successful in detecting falls at TigerPlace, a residential care facility in Columbia, Mo. When a resident falls, staff members receive an email alert and a video clip showing what happened. This not only helps staffers respond with medical care if necessary, but also identify what happened before the fall to work on preventing it in the future. 

Skubic’s and Rantz’s radar and 3-D sensors measure speed, stride time and stride length among TigerPlace residents, data which is proven to determine whether people are at a greater risk of falling. The research team is also testing mounted sensors that detect pulse, respiration and motion to predict health problems. 

“A person making more trips to the bathroom than usual might be developing a urinary tract infection,” WSJ reports. “Someone who spends longer sitting in a chair when they usually move from room to room might be getting depressed or struggling with mobility.”

This technology ultimately seeks to prevent the most common problem affecting seniors, especially when more than 72 million Americans — nearly one in every five — will be 65 and older by 2030.

To read the full Wall Street Journal article, click here

Written by Emily Study

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