Sensors help seniors age at home

By Mike Miliard
12:23 PM

COLUMBIA, MO  -  A pilot program at University of Missouri shows promise with the use of sensor technology to help aging adults remain in their homes longer while being monitored by care providers.

Marjorie Skubic, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the MU College of Engineering, and Marilyn Rantz, a curator's professor of nursing in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing, have received a grant from the National Science Foundation to expand their work to a facility in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Skubic and Rantz have used motion-sensing technology to monitor changes in residents' health for several years at TigerPlace, an eldercare facility in Columbia, Mo. With the NSF grant, fiber networking in Columbia and Cedar Falls will provide the infrastructure necessary for healthcare providers in Missouri to remotely monitor the health of elderly residents in Iowa. In addition, high-speed video conferencing technology will enable communication between staff and residents at the two locations.

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"Using what we're already doing at TigerPlace and deploying it at the facility in Cedar Falls will allow us to further test the concept of remote health care," said Rantz in a written statement.

Adults obviously want to stay independent as they age, but for many, health problems mean moving to assisted-care facilities where they can be observed by medical professionals.

This new pilot could pave the way for many similar projects offering seniors a much greater degree of independence. The researchers say it could help identify early changes in health  -  key to maintaining health, independence and function for older adults, the researchers said.

Equipping their elderly patients with sensors "allows us to unobtrusively monitor their health changes based on their individual activity patterns and baseline health conditions," said Rantz.

The in-home monitoring systems use proactive, rather than reactive, ways of monitoring seniors' health, according to Rantz, offering automated data that alert care providers when patients need assistance or intervention. The sensors will include video gaming technology for measuring residents' movements in the home, and the researchers will integrate new hydraulic bed sensors that will monitor an individual's pulse, respiration and restlessness.

"We're using high-speed networks to solve real-world problems," said Skubic. "Implementing the health alert system in Cedar Falls will tell us how the approach we use at TigerPlace compares to other settings. It will be an important step toward facilitating independent housing, which is where most seniors want to be."

"The sensors help identify the small problems--before they become big problems," Rantz said. "Based on the data collected by the sensors, health providers can offer timely interventions designed to change the trajectory in individuals' functional decline."

A study published earlier this year from UK-based Juniper Research suggests that the number of patients monitored by mobile networks could reach 3 million by 2016. "Remote patient monitoring will step in to reduce the cost burden of unhealthy lifestyles and aging populations," said the report's author Juniper associate analyst Anthony Cox.