As the old saying — often attributed to Bette Davis — has it, “Getting old ain’t for sissies.” For most people, growing old is a lot better if they can stay in their own homes as they age, something called “aging in place.”
But for many older people, especially those with some degree of cognitive impairment, staying at home has not been a realistic option. The good news is modern technology might be changing that.
Data-Driven Home Care Devices
For more than a decade, researchers at the Oregon Center for Aging and Technology, a part of Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), have been gathering data that can track the health and well-being of people as they age.
One such initiative, CART (Collaborative Aging Research using Technology), is collecting data about individuals from diverse backgrounds and using that data to better understand how health changes over time.
Another initiative, AI-Caring (an acronym for this mouthful: AI Institute for Collaborative Assistance and Responsive Interaction for Networked Groups), is a research institute focused on artificial intelligence and funded by the National Science Foundation.
It involves a collaboration among five universities: Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon University, Oregon State University, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and OHSU. The institute aims to develop artificial intelligence systems that help aging adults (including those diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment) and their caregivers.
Ultimately the goal of these programs is to develop technologies that keep people independent as long as possible as they age, explains Jeffery Kaye, MD, director of the OHSU Layton Aging & Alzheimer’s Disease Center. What might this tech look like?
To start off, it might look like nothing more than a small doorbell. Soon, it might look like a robot.
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Aging in Place Products
One reason people have to move to assisted living, even in the early stages of cognitive decline, is because they’re likely to forget important things, such as turning off the stove or closing the front door.
Sonia Chernova, an expert in interactive computing at Georgia Tech University, is the lead principal investigator with AI-Caring. She describes a standard suite of sensors that can monitor such things and alert a caregiver if, say, someone leaves the stove on. Keeping tabs on the refrigerator can help, too. If the fridge hasn’t been opened all day, that can be a sign that the person is not eating, says Chernova.
Programmable electronic pill boxes can ensure the right medications are taken at the right time and even alert caregivers if a dose is missed. Smart scales can track weight, body fat, pulse and even room temperature, providing data for researchers and real-time information for doctors and caregivers.
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In a more complex system, says Chernova, home sensors using AI could detect what’s normal for a given person, then alert someone if something changes. For example, say you always pick up your mail in the afternoon. If one day, you do it at three in the morning, the system will note that change and send out an alert.
These sensors can, of course, be programmed to meet the needs of individuals and their caregivers. AI-Caring teams are currently testing what features people want. For example, they’ve found that patients generally prefer a medication reminder to ask, “Have you taken your medication today?” rather than, “Don’t forget to take your medication.”
It seems like a small difference, but those kinds of details can change how the whole system is perceived, says Chernova. It also puts more agency in the hands of the patient, which is, after all, what aging in place is all about.
The Future of Assistive Robots
Researchers are also looking at how assistive robotics might be used to help people age in place. A robot, says Chernova, might make it possible for relatives and caregivers who don’t live nearby to check in and assist via a telepresence, much like healthcare providers do with telehealth.
Soon robots might be able to help around the house, doing simple chores and fetching items. Chernova says these robots aren’t yet being used in people’s homes, but her team is looking into ways robots can help. Stretch, designed by Hello Robot, is a platform being developed specifically for in-home care, Chernova says.
One day, your caregiver might be a robot — and that robot might be what makes it possible for you to grow old in your own home.
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