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Smart homes take care of their elderly residents

Photonics Spectra
May 2009
Amanda D. Francoeur,

In the future, instead of leaving the comfort of home, the elderly may be able to live on their own with the assistance of sensors within the residence that monitor them continuously and autonomously.

As the aging population continues to increase worldwide, this technology could provide a way to relieve overcrowded nursing homes and decrease health care costs.

Living with sensors

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering (IESE) are developing intelligent homes, or ambient assisted living environments, equipped with numerous hidden devices and interfaces for those who need some assistance – or a lot of it. It’s a way to “give the people a chance to stay at home,” said Alexander Rabe, head of the marketing department at IESE.

Shown is an intelligent environment set up by IESE with sensors mounted inconspicuously in various areas. A computer monitor, which is wirelessly connected to a hidden control center, is placed on the coffee table and is the only component of the system that is clearly visible. Residents can use the screen to change their preferences, or they can allow the technology to operate autonomously. Image courtesy of IESE.

The technology uses, for example, high-frequency sensors in every room of the house, and they’re mounted discreetly to avoid any obtrusiveness. “You can track the whole picture,” Rabe said. It’s the “best assistance [one] can receive.”

Radio-frequency identification sensors can be placed in the floor to monitor where the resident is at all times. Sensors are present even in the mattress, where motion and pressure detectors observe breathing, heartbeat and sleeping patterns.

All of the data gathered from monitoring an elderly person’s lifestyle is sent via wireless communication and stored in a control center – a small black box – that can be hidden somewhere within the home. Using a computer screen, the resident will be able to change certain information stored in the system, such as his primary contact or personal physician.

This compilation of data can be helpful to doctors at a later date for determining when it’s too risky for an individual to live on his own. Data on personal hygiene, on how many times the bathroom or toilet was used, and on whether any falls have occurred will give physicians ample information about a person’s routine and about how staff can provide personalized care when it is necessary for the resident to move to a nursing home.

In addition, data collected can be reviewed to determine whether an emergency is likely to occur. If an urgent situation such as a heart attack or a fall does take place, the technology alerts emergency personnel.

Another advantage to the sensors is that they can detect when a person hasn’t left home for an extended period of time. The system notifies the primary contact via a message from the control center so the seriousness of the situation can be determined.

A bathroom and beyond

The bathroom, as a place where health is maintained and personal hygiene takes place – and where safety is a key issue – is a particularly important room in a house. Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Microelectronic Circuits and Systems (IMS) in Duisburg have developed a bathroom suite called inBath. It includes mechanical actuators that can adjust the toilet seat to individualized heights for everyone living in a single home. Gears can adjust the sink height and that of the entire bathroom cabinet mirror for easy access. Automatic electronic light switches, water-saving faucets and toothpaste monitors also are provided.

A touch-screen system on the bathroom mirror reveals large, illuminated pictograms such as temperature change buttons for hot and cold water, and a music icon, among many other features. Image courtesy of IMS.

Furthermore, illuminated pictograms on a half-transparent mirror prompt residents who have dementia or who are otherwise sick to perform basic tasks they might forget, such as washing their face or hands, brushing their teeth and even shaving. A recorded voice reminds the person to take his pills. During the relevant prompt, a nearby cubicle holding, for example, a toothbrush, comb or medications is lighted to help the resident locate the item.

Sensing advancements

A difficulty that the researchers at IESE are addressing is how to make the technology adapt to random activities inconsistent with the resident’s scheduled routine. It’s called trend recognition – analyzing changes in routines, which the system adapts to, Rabe said.

In the future, Rabe said, researchers would like to install various sensors in the refrigerator or on the products inside to track what is in there and what the resident has removed from it, for evaluating how much a person has eaten or drunk within the course of a day.

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