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Tech's Next Big Thing Is Going to Be Great for Seniors

Tech's Next Big Thing Is Going to Be Great for Seniors

Dave Johnson

Joe Anderson

Joe Anderson

Pittsburgh’s Vincentian senior living homes had a problem. Their residents need regular exercise, but different residents have different levels of endurance. For instance, it's dangerous for some seniors to walk unsupervised—but at the same time, it's impractical, not to mention invasive, to assign a nurse to assist each person desiring a healthy stroll. The solution? Sensors in the floor that measure vibrations and thereby the gait of each resident. Algorithms process the information and accurately predict how long each person can walk safely and comfortably.

The internet of things (IoT) is a broad term for all sorts of interconnected gadgets that collect, share, and respond to data. The phrase may be muddy, but you’ve probably already encountered IoT. Consider a smart front door lock like August, for example, which connects with your smartphone and automatically unlocks as you approach your porch. Other devices, like Amazon Echo, can be used to control a bevy of appliances and electronics throughout your home. Still others, like the floor sensors at the Vincentian, collect and analyze user data for health and wellness applications. Many of these devices are little more than high-tech conveniences, but among them are products focused on one of our most vulnerable populations: the elderly. And not a moment too soon.

America’s population is getting older. In 2014, people 65 years or older numbered about 46 million, or 14.5 percent of the population. According to statistics from the Administration on Aging, the ratio is going to balloon to almost 22 percent by 2040, stressing our healthcare system and spiking demand for nursing homes, assisted care, and other eldercare facilities. But a few companies are harnessing the technology of the internet of things in order to lessen the healthcare burden and keep older Americans living independently longer. 

Essence: A Natural Evolution

courtesy Care@Home

courtesy Care@Home

There’s nothing revolutionary about the concept of technology helping seniors. Devices like Essence’s Personal Emergency Response System (PERS), a wearable pendant that users can use to signal for help, have been around for years. The pendant, part of Essence’s venerable Care@Home product line, is paired with a base station and allows an ill or injured user to start an immediate conversation with a call center attendant, who can assess the situation and send for an emergency responder if needed.

Now Essence is adding technology that learns a wearer’s patterns and proactively responds to unusual behavior. For instance, rather than waiting for a PERS wearer to request assistance after a serious fall, Essence now looks for the signs of a fall automatically. “We partnered with a company called BioSensics to implement a gait algorithm,” says Josh Loc, Essence director of U.S. sales. “We know what a fall looks like mathematically, so just dropping the pendant doesn’t trigger anything; that looks very different than an actual fall.” If a fall is detected, a call center attendant tries to contact the user and then summons an emergency responder, if needed, saving precious time if there’s an injury or a medical reason for the fall.

A new version called Care@Home Family pairs the PERS system with a smartphone app and additional sensors, which allows family members or other caregivers access to real-time data about the behavior of their senior. But rather than facilitate spying, the software enables caregivers to set up smart rules that only send a notification when something is wrong.  

For example, a senior living alone may go to the bathroom once during the night. But if Care@Home Family detects that he or she starts going several times at night, it can notify family members or the senior’s primary care doctor about a potential problem, like a bladder infection. Or, as Loc explains, “If I’m caring for my mother, I want to make sure she’s up and moving by 9am. With Care@Home Family I have peace of mind this is happening every day. I can set a smart rule for 9am. If all is well, no alerts. But if she doesn’t get up at her usual time, I get a notification.”

Mother Watches Over the Home

One of Mother's motion cookies attached to a medication bottle. Courtesy of Sen.se.

One of Mother's motion cookies attached to a medication bottle. Courtesy of Sen.se.

Care@Home is a subscription service; you pay an ongoing fee (the price varies by features, but it generally starts around $35 a month) in order to have access to the 24/7 call center.

But there are alternatives that don’t require an ongoing subscription. Sen.se’s Mother is a “self-serve” network of smart sensors designed to let you keep tabs on a slew of things around the home. It’s designed with a traditional household in mind, but it is especially appealing for seniors – particularly since it’s fairly simple to configure and use.

Home base for Mother is a monitoring station that looks like an oversized Russian nesting doll, which works with thin, peanut-shaped sensors called motion cookies that make ordinary household objects “smart.” The standard package includes a home base and four cookies, but you can expand the system with additional cookies as well.

Here’s an example: Attach a motion cookie to the refrigerator door, and it’ll know when it has been accidentally left open. Or, you can place a motion cookie on a medicine container and configure the app to remind you if you’ve missed taking a medication (since the sensor will notice if you don’t move the container).

That’s just scratching the surface. Motion cookies can perform a wealth of other activities, including Fitbit-like activity tracking, sleep quality monitoring, and even security-style front door alerts. 

K4Community: A Holistic IoT Dashboard

A senior resident using K4Community. Courtesy K4Connect.

A senior resident using K4Community. Courtesy K4Connect.

The internet of things extends far beyond super specific applications like fall detection and motion monitoring. K4Connect’s K4Community, for example, turns your phone or tablet into a comprehensive dashboard and control panel for a wealth of mainstream gadgets like smart lights, thermostats, webcams, and other common IoT devices—with a specific focus on seniors and people with health problems that make it a challenge to use these kinds of smart devices. It’s meant to address, in a nutshell, the concern that seniors might not embrace tech like the IoT.

“My daughter’s grandmother doesn’t wear the same clothes as my daughter. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t like clothes. If you build things seniors find utility in, they will use it.”
— K4Connect's Scott Moody

For Scott Moody, the creator of K4Community, it’s all about making truly useful tech accessible to those who most need it. “We have often heard seniors don't like tech. I think that's BS. My daughter's grandmother doesn’t wear the same clothes as my daughter. That doesn't mean she doesn't like clothes. If you build things seniors find utility in, they will use it.”

The K4Community dashboard is designed to be consistent no matter what device it is controlling, regardless of the complexity of those devices or the fact they all originally had different manufacturers and controls. The idea is that with only one set of controls to master (specifically designed for less tech-savvy users), seniors will have a much easier time using products as wide-ranging as home automation (lights, thermostats, doorbells, and so on), health products (like activity trackers and smart scales), medication monitors, and even messaging and chat apps.

K4Wellness. Courtesy K4Connect.

K4Wellness. Courtesy K4Connect.

Says Moody: “We don't make a medical diagnosis, but K4Connect helps inform its users so they can manage their health and wellness better. You could even bring your tablet to the doctor and show him the data it has been collecting.” In the future, it’s not inconceivable that data from devices and services like K4Community could be sent directly to the doctor, giving them months of daily data with which to assess their patients.

Right now, K4Community is designed for assisted living communities, though a new version—K4Life, which takes most of the features in K4Community and makes them available for seniors who are living independently—will begin a pilot program later this year, with a release date scheduled for 2018.

There’s More Brewing in the Lab

Are You Well. Courtesy of Comptel.

Are You Well. Courtesy of Comptel.

Moreover, researchers are doing exciting things to increase the IoT’s ability to actually predict and prevent injury and illness in everyday life, and they’re starting with a mundane problem that is the leading cause of fatal injuries among seniors: falling. Indeed, as we already saw at the Vincentian, Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering researchers have been developing an IoT solution that doesn’t simply detect falls like Essence’s Care@Home, but rather predicts them.

For this to work, sensors, like ones used in seismology for earthquake analysis, are positioned indoors. Says Carnegie Mellon researcher Haeyoung Noh, “We are not instrumenting people at all. We look at floor vibrations created by people’s steps.”

The work Carnegie Mellon has done shows that sensor data can be analyzed in real time to identify individual people by the way they walk. Says fellow researcher Pei Zhang, “That’s not surprising. When I was a kid I could tell whether it was my dad or my mom coming up the stairs just by listening.”

Zhang adds that “The sensor system can actually track if an individual is not walking the way they normally do, whether because medication is making them unsteady or they’ve become fatigued.” As a result, their system can predict an impending fall and potentially prevent it by sending an alert to the individual or their caregiver.

That’s not all. Zhang and Noh assert that the same vibration analysis can also inform individuals and their caregivers about psychological states, such as if a senior is dizzy from a bad medication interaction, or even a little depressed.

“Our goal is to enhance older adults’ quality of life by helping them to be better informed about their own limits and health,” said Zhang.

The sensors are currently being tested at the Vincentian and Lucas Physical Therapy and Fitness in Sunnyvale, California, with an eventual goal of installing the system in private homes.

While the Carnegie Mellon research relies on specialty sensors, software company Comptel is testing a prototype wellness app called Are You Well that relies only on the sensors—accelerometers, GPS, temperature, and more—built into a smartphone.

Comptel processes the data those sensors generate to draw conclusions about user behavior. Explains Veli-Pekka Luoma, Director of Advanced Analytics for IoT at Comptel, “We learn about individual people’s routine patterns of behavior and calculate probability for expected behavior.”

That means the software can detect potential medical problems. Like other solutions, it can tell if the user falls. But it also stays alert to see if someone is inactive during a time when they’re usually up and about, or if someone is active when they would ordinarily be sleeping—automatically, and without the need to manually create alert “rules” such as those in Care@Home Family. If a problem is detected, the software can then trigger an appropriate message to the individual or their caregiver.

The Future is Being Monitored

Despite rapid developments, not everyone is comfortable using this technology. As Moody quips, “Tech is a euphemism for ‘you need to be very accommodating to this product.’” In particular, the IoT can be pretty fiddly and seniors—lacking the tech savviness of growing up around Bluetooth and iPads—aren’t generally that inclined to master a wonky device. For most IoT products, usability by seniors is an afterthought, if it’s considered at all. K4Connect’s software is the rare exception that’s engineered with senior users in mind from the outset.

These IoT solutions also raise the specter of being monitored—or at the very least tracked and recorded. Devices like the Carnegie Melon seismic sensors can only feel for vibrations on the floor, but Are You Well pays attention to midnight bathroom habits—and Care@Home Family exposes all sorts of behavioral information directly to the caregiver. Comptel’s Luoma claimed only a small percentage of test users were concerned about their data being observed, and that even those skeptical participants set aside their worries when they weighed them against the independence Are You Well facilitates.

And in that sense, the IoT future is probably little different than the rise of social media. Twenty years ago, most people would have bristled at the idea of giving up their online privacy. These days, Facebook offers enough value that users consider it a fair trade. The IoT offers something even better: health, wellness, and autonomy. 

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