Using technology to help older adults keep their independence

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Story highlights

  • Researchers at Georgia Tech are turning houses into smart homes to help keep older adults safe
  • One expert uses a Fitbit to keep track of her aging mother, and robots can help, too

(CNN)A charming three-story home trimmed in white sits at the corner of 10th and Center streets on the Georgia Institute of Technology campus in Atlanta.

From the outside, the 5,000-square-foot abode appears just like any other home, but inside, Georgia Tech researchers are testing and developing cutting-edge devices to determine which can make the home safer -- and smarter -- for older adults.
The house is actually a living lab, called the Aware Home, and research conducted there has revealed some of the top home-related concerns among older adults, said Brian Jones, director of the Aware Home and a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech.
    "Some of the concerns they had were around unattended cooking," he said, adding that the No. 1 cause of fires in older adults' homes is cooking equipment.
    "If you forget that you have turned on the water to draw a bath or to wash the dishes, that can cause significant damage in the home," he said. "TVs left on was another ... and then door locks."
    Now, some in-home technologies are in development -- or on the market -- to address those concerns.

    What the future holds for older adult care

    A stove at the Aware Home has been equipped with sensing and a large colored-light system that blinks to alert you when the oven has been left on unattended, which can be helpful if you are nearby. If you are leaving the house, a photo frame placed by the front door blinks and plays sound to notify you that the stove is unattended and left on.
    Devices of the future are expected to collect and use data to become much more personalized, said Elizabeth Mynatt, a professor and executive director of the Institute for People and Technology at Georgia Tech.
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    "They will learn more about your habits, your likes, your dislikes, your routines, when you're most likely to forget to take your medication, what are the aspects of your health that need the most attention," she said. "They will become as personalized to you that you just can't even imagine living without them."
    For instance, a long hallway in the Aware Home is equipped with gait-sensing technology through which the walking patterns of someone strutting by are screened, collected and analyzed.
    Those personalized data could be used to track that individual's health. The data even could be programmed with an algorithm to alert a caregiver if any potentially harmful changes emerge in the gait pattern.
    "To track how someone is doing ... is very important," Mynatt said.
    "It's important for the daughter who wants to know that her mom is doing OK. It's important for someone who might need to respond to a health emergency, and it is important for health professionals who might need to see those slight declines or trends over time," she said. "Perhaps a person is less steady going up those steps than they were three months ago. That would be an important indicator to maybe make some changes in the house before a fall or something else occurs."
    Jones, director of the Aware Home, said that while such technologies can help monitor an older adult's health, he doesn't think they would entirely eliminate the need for care facilities. Rather, "it might also help in informing a family when someone may need a caregiver," he said.
    Mynatt agreed that at some point, the human body may need more constant care, and so there still may be a need for care facilities.
    "What we will hopefully see is that older adults will live the majority of their lives in the setting of their choice," she said. "Only in times of acute medical crisis or only at the very, very end of life would you have to move out of this setting."
    For now, Mynatt and her colleagues are analyzing how such technologies may change the future. However, you don't have to wait: Some technologies are assisting older adults today.

    Smart home technologies on the market

    Mynatt has connected her smartphone to her mother's Fitbit in order to keep track of her health and safety, despite living about a three-hour drive away, she said.
    "If I'm wondering how she's doing, I can just check on her steps," Mynatt said. "I know that on Friday, she volunteers in the hospital and there's going to be a lot of steps, and I know what Sunday's going to look like, and I know what her routine is. So that little bit of information actually tells me quite a bit that she's doing alright."
    As the 65-and-older population in the United States is projected to nearly double by the year 2050 -- reaching 83.7 million -- more and more smart technologies have appeared on the market for older adults.
    One new device called Inirv React, currently in beta testing, connects your stove to a sensor in your home and a smartphone app. The sensor will automatically turn the stove off if it no longer detects motion around the appliance after a long period of time. You can also turn the stove off using your smartphone.
    LifeAssist Technologies has developed the Reminder Rosie, a clock that allows you to record personalized messages and reminders that will be broadcast at scheduled times for whomever is in the home. A reminder could be to take medication or that the grandchildren will be coming over for dinner.
    Then there's MedMinder, a collection of automatic medication dispensers. The dispensers first flash to remind users to take their medication. They then beep if the medicine's still not taken. Next, they call the user. After a certain period of time, a caregiver or family member will be notified.
    There are robots on the market for older adults, too. The Paris-based company Bluefrog Robotics has developed Buddy, a companion robot that can act as a calendar reminder and alarm clock, and connect with home security systems.
    With any technology, "most people ask that question, 'How invasive is it?' ... But what we hear from older adults is that they value the security and the safety that the technology provides for them," Mynatt said.
    "When we've talked to older adults about robots that could help them in the home, they'll tell us that they would rather have a robot than a human caregiver in some cases, because robots don't gossip," she said. "They don't look through their things. Robots don't judge. So if a robot could help them day in and day out then, and a human could come in as needed, they would love that combination."

    'Being independent is foremost in the mind'

    While many older adults worry about losing their independence, 75-year-old Albert Bolet of Atlanta thinks most older adults are typically receptive to bringing technology into their homes.
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    "People have the misguided impression that seniors are adverse to technology. I don't think that that is true at all," said Bolet, who has participated as a subject in research at Georgia Tech's Aware Home with his wife, Margarita.
    "We do know what routers are, we do understand wireless technology, and we understand how these things will make things easier. People will always tend to use things that are simple and will eliminate problems in their life," he said. "Being independent is foremost in the mind of anybody that gets to be our age or older."
    As technologies develop, researchers hope that they continue to improve independence and provide more options for older adults in the future.