Another Kind of American Independence

Skiing is fun, especially when, at the end of the day, you can remove your skis by yourself instead of having them unhinged by force and torque. As I get accustomed to moving around on crutches this week, I am grateful for a number of things. First are the family members and friends who go out of their way to help me. But I'm also grateful for the technologies that allow me to operate fairly independently. And I'm thinking about the applications now under development to help baby boomers like me to retain our independence as we age—and to better care for loved ones.

Recently, I installed Skype on my home computer and those of my parents (who last week celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary). Because my folks and I have chosen to allow each other to know when we are online, an unexpected benefit of Skype is that it lets me see that they are following their daily computer-use routine. Although we talk by phone almost every day, this unobtrusive view into their world gives me added comfort.

Pilot Studies
Pilot studies now underway in homes and assisted care facilities demonstrate how networks of sensors can give comfort to caregivers and alert them-and medical professionals-to respond immediately when things go awry or to make proactive corrections to increase comfort and help avoid mishaps. The initial study completed recently by folks at the University of Virginia, Medical Automation Research Center (MARC) and the Volunteers of America National Services evaluated the acceptance and utility of MARC's passive in-home health status monitoring system in one situation. Within six weeks, reports revealed abnormal patterns in the activity of four participants—patterns indicating problems that caregivers were able to immediately remedy.

As you might imagine, fear of falling was a common concern among the study participants. The fall alert system under test, which was based only on motion sensing, generated several false alerts, failed to register a few actual falls, and successfully detected several other falls, allowing caregivers to respond faster. After the study, the alerting sub-system was refined and augmented with vibration sensors in the floor.

Clearly, such systems need further testing and refinement, but the conclusion—that passive in-home monitoring system assisted in rapid assessment and early detection of certain health conditions that might otherwise have been missed—is heartening. And importantly, the study concludes that the folks being monitored experienced a statistically significant increase in their quality of life after monitoring, possibly due to increased sense of security and/ or improved care quality.

Center for Aging Services Technologies
Details of this and other pilot programs are discussed on the Web site of the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST). Established in 2003, CAST has become a national coalition of more than 400 technology companies, aging services organizations, research universities, and government representatives, and its mission is to unleash the potential of technology in order to:

  • Help older adults maximize their independence
  • Support professional and family caregivers
  • Improve quality of care and quality of life
  • Reduce our nation's health care costs
  • Increase aging services provider efficiency
An executive summary, which CAST presented to the White House Conference on Aging in December 2005 says:
"We envision a day in the not distant future, where, non-invasive, low-cost technologies in a home will enable older adults to remain independent longer and reduce their utilization of professional healthcare services. For example, by placing "invisible" sensors in strategic locations around the home, a family or professional caregiver could monitor remotely the activities and status of a senior living alone or in an assisted living or residential care facility."

The document discusses how sensors are being combined with other technologies such as RFID, GPS, PDAs to further enhance care and enable us to live in dignity while staying connected. A video on the site drives the message home.

More Development, Better Care
Certainly as the sensor and communications systems develop, information security schemes will need to keep pace. But the sensor-rich environment under development for activity monitoring will enable us as a society to deliver better care more easily.

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