As the old adage – often attributed to Bette Davis – goes, “Getting old is not for sissies”. For most people, aging is much better if they can stay in their homes as they age, which is called “aging in place.”
But for many older people, especially those with some degree of cognitive impairment, staying home has not been a realistic option. The good news is that modern technology could change that.
Data-Driven Home Care Devices
For more than a decade, researchers at the Oregon Center for Aging and Technology, part of Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), have collected data to track the health and well-being of people with as they age.
One such initiative, CART (Collaborative Aging Research using Technology), collects data on people from diverse backgrounds and uses that data to better understand how health changes over time.
Another initiative, AI-Caring (acronym for this mouthful: AI Institute for Collaborative Assistance and Responsive Interaction for Networked Groups), is an artificial intelligence-focused research institute funded by the National Science Foundation.
It involves collaboration between five universities: Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon University, Oregon State University, 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 for as long as possible as they age, says Jeffery Kaye, MD, director of the OHSU Layton Aging & Alzheimer’s Disease Center. What could this technology look like?
For starters, it might look like nothing more than a small doorbell. Soon he might look like a robot.
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One of the reasons people have to move into an assisted living facility, even in the early stages of cognitive decline, is that they may forget important things, like turning off the stove or closing the front door.
Sonia Chernova, an interactive computing expert at Georgia Tech University, is AI-Caring’s Principal Investigator. She describes a standard suite of sensors that can monitor such things and alert a caregiver if, for example, someone leaves the stove on. Keeping an eye on the refrigerator can also help. If the fridge hasn’t been open all day, it may be a sign that the person isn’t eating, Chernova says.
Programmable electronic pill dispensers 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 ambient temperature, providing data to researchers and real-time information to doctors and caregivers.
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In a more complex system, Chernova says, home sensors using AI could detect what’s normal for a given person, then alert someone if something changes. For example, let’s 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 this change and send an alert.
These sensors can, of course, be programmed to meet the needs of individuals and their caregivers. The AI-Caring teams are currently testing the functionalities desired by users. For example, they found that patients generally prefer a medication reminder to ask, “Did you take your medication today?” rather than “Don’t forget to take your medicine”.
It seems like a small difference, but those kinds of details can change how the whole system is perceived, Chernova says. It also gives the patient more agency, which is, after all, what aging in place is.
The future of assistive robots
Researchers are also investigating how assistive robotics could be used to help people age in place. A robot, Chernova says, could allow relatives and caregivers who don’t live nearby to check in and help via telepresence, much like healthcare providers do with telehealth.
Soon robots could help around the house, perform simple chores and fetch items. Chernova says these robots aren’t used in homes yet, but her team is studying how the robots can help. Stretchdesigned by Hello Robot, is a platform developed specifically for home care, says Chernova.
One day your caregiver could be a robot – and that robot could be what allows you to age in your own home.
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