Motion sensors tested for seniors who want to remain at home

Wednesday, July 10, 2013 | 8:49 a.m. CDT; updated 8:26 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 11, 2013
Bob Harrison writes in his TigerPlace apartment in Columbia. Different sensors mounted near the ceiling record activity patterns. The sensor technology is unobtrusive and does not interfere with his everyday tasks. Researchers at MU are studying high-tech monitoring systems that promise new safety nets for seniors living on their own.

WASHINGTON — It could mean no more having to check up on Mom or Dad every morning: Motion sensors on the wall and a monitor under the mattress one day might automatically alert you to early signs of trouble well before an elderly loved one gets sick or suffers a fall.

Research is growing with high-tech gadgets that promise new safety nets for seniors determined to live on their own for as long as possible.

"It's insurance in case something should happen," is how Bob Harrison, 85, describes the unobtrusive monitors being tested in his apartment at the TigerPlace retirement community in Columbia.

Most seniors want to live at home

Living at home — specialists call it aging in place — is what most people want for their later years. Americans 40 and older are just as worried about losing their independence as they are about losing their memory, according to a recent survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Common-sense interventions like grab bars in bathrooms and taping down rugs to prevent tripping can make homes safer as seniors deal with chronic illnesses. Technology is the next frontier, and a far cry from those emergency-call buttons seniors sometimes wear to summon help.

Already, some companies are offering monitoring packages that place motion sensors on the front door, a favorite chair, even the refrigerator, and then send an alert to a family member if there's too little activity over a certain period of time. Other gadgets can make pill bottles buzz when it's time for a dose and text a caregiver if it's not taken, or promise to switch off a stove burner that's left on too long.

Researchers at the University of Missouri aim to go further: Their experiments show that certain automatic monitoring can spot changes — such as restlessness in bed or a drop in daytime activity — that occur 10 days to two weeks before a fall or a trip to the doctor or hospital.

"We were blown away that we could actually detect this," said nursing professor Marilyn Rantz, an aging-in-place specialist who is leading the research. She compares it to "a vital sign of my physical function."

Gadgets measure pulse, breathing

Why would the gadgets work? That monitor under the mattress can measure pulse and respiratory patterns to see if heart failure is worsening before someone realizes he or she is becoming short of breath. More nighttime bathroom trips can indicate a brewing urinary tract infection.

A change in gait, such as starting to take shorter or slower steps, can signal increased risk for a fall. Basic motion sensors can't detect that. So Rantz's team adapted the Microsoft Kinect 3-D camera, developed for video games, to measure subtle changes in walking. (Yes, it can distinguish visitors.)

The researchers installed the sensor package in apartments at the university-affiliated TigerPlace community and in a Cedar Falls, Iowa, senior complex. On-site nurses received automatic emails about significant changes in residents' activity.

One study found that after a year, residents who agreed to be monitored were functioning better than an unmonitored control group, presumably because nurses intervened sooner at signs of trouble, Rantz said.

The bigger question is whether simply alerting a loved one, not a nurse, might also help. Now, with a new grant from the National Institutes of Health, Rantz will begin expanding the research to see how this monitoring works in different senior housing — and this time, participants can decide if they'd like a family member or friend to get those alerts, in addition to a nurse.

Rantz says embedding sensors in the home is important because too many older adults forget or don't want to wear those older emergency-call buttons — including Rantz's own mother, who lay helpless on her floor for eight hours after tripping and badly breaking a shoulder. Rantz said her mother never fully recovered, and six months later died.

"When we started this team, I said we are not going to make anybody wear anything or push any buttons, because my mother refused and I don't think she's any different than a lot of other people in this world," Rantz said.

Privacy issues raised

Monitoring raises important privacy questions, about just what is tracked and who has access to it, cautioned Jeff Makowka of AARP.

To work, the high-tech approach has to be "less about, 'We're watching you, Grandma,' but 'Hey, Grandma, how come you didn't make coffee this morning?'" he said.

Sensor prices are another hurdle, although Makowka said they're dropping. Various kinds already on the market can run from about $70 to several hundred, plus monthly service plans.

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Ellis Smith July 10, 2013 | 9:47 a.m.

Use of the word "insist," rather than, say, "prefer" is more than a little interesting. Biased, are we?

(Report Comment)
Tracy Greever-Rice July 10, 2013 | 10:25 p.m.

While I agree with Ellis that the headline is hugely condescending, the article itself is no better. After the age of maturity (17 or 18 in most states these days), unless one has been legally declared incompetent, one can live anywhere one CHOOSES to live within one's means.

The frame is grossly inappropriate, demeaning and infantilizing. It presumes that the primary role of people over 40, 60, 80... is that of 'patient'. And it not only presumes the primary role of 'patient', it presumes a wholly ignorant patient lacking in self-awareness to recognize symptoms of conditions as common as an urinary tract infection???

The teensy-tiny dismissive little blurb at the tail end about privacy is really the clincher. 'Grandma', really??? Yeah, because when a person in the last third or quarter of his/her life isn't busy being treated by the medical industry, certainly the only other thing he/she could possibly be doing is waiting for once-removed descendants to acknowledge their feeble, mindless, helpless existence.

But my very favorite part of this article is the parens '(Yes, it can distinguish visitors.)' 'Visitors', nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more ;) Like picking up two racing heartbeats instead of one when 'Grandma's' buddy comes over?

Let me be clear, I'm not making fun of or criticizing Dr. Rance's very important work in assisted living facilities for mildly to significantly impaired people (some folks who require assisted living aren't even 'seniors' - booyah!). Her work is great stuff. It is WHOLLY the way this story is told that is the problem. Clearly the reporter has no clue as to the wide variation in the interests, capacities, and contributions of seniors - or even what it means to be a senior.

And 'Living at home - specialists call it aging in place'... Really??? Well, bankers call it 'paying a mortgage', the Fuller Brush man calls it 'a potential sale', the Jehovah Witnesses call it 'a potential soul to save', adult children call it 'minding the inheritance', next-door neighbors call it 'source of cups of sugar'...

I could go on & on, but I need to call my dad. Not to check on his coffee intake, but to thank him & finish travel arrangements for my son. He's going for a visit to train for the half-marathon they'll be running together in October, which is my 70 year old dad's hobby that he enjoys when not practicing law or volunteering in community - I just blew your mind, didn't I, young reporter?

I'm glad to see this story has an AP byline. It would be very disheartening if the Missourian let this hot mess of a stereotyping-frenzy slip through.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 11, 2013 | 6:55 a.m.

Tracy Greever-Rice said,

"I'm glad to see this story has an AP byline."

I'm NOT, because the person or persons who wrote it are probably the product of SOMEBODY'S journalism school (and it could be MU's, since no person's names are listed). Also, the Missourian not only chose to publish the stupid article, they attached a photo of a local elderly person to it.

Shape up, summer academic recess doesn't apply here.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 11, 2013 | 7:20 a.m.

I'm in complete agreement with Ellis and Tracy.

As Tracy says, this article is an utter mess. Her comment, "The frame is grossly inappropriate, demeaning and infantilizing" is spot-on. As is "It is WHOLLY the way this story is told that is the problem. Clearly the reporter has no clue as to the wide variation in the interests, capacities, and contributions of seniors - or even what it means to be a senior."

"Clearly" indeed.

The research is just fine. This is an "reporter attitude" issue.

As for me, this 63 y/o "patient-writer" has some outside chainsaw work to do before it gets hot, something I not only "prefer", but "insist" upon......

(Report Comment)

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