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ARCHIVED - Smart home offers independent living for seniors

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A system that knows when to contact family, doctors or emergency personnel could help seniors stay longer in their own homes, and offer a sense of security for their loved ones.

The tables have turned for many baby boomers who find themselves keeping a sharp eye on their parents as they move through their senior years. A case in point is the Garson family. Ken and his wife Amy are the primary support for Amy’s mother, who lives in her own home in Ottawa but has trouble walking and is hard of hearing.

Amy Garson and her mother Barbara Goble

Amy Garson checks up on her mother Barbara Goble almost every day.

The Garsons check on Amy’s mother every day. When they can’t reach her by phone, they must make a stressful 15-minute drive to her house to make sure she is all right. Most often, she has just not heard the phone, but in a recent case she had fallen outside her garage door on a frigid night, and was unable to get up. Fortunately, on that occasion, she had her cell phone with her and was able to call them for help.

“It would definitely reduce our level of worry if we had a way to make sure that an accident hasn’t occurred, or alert us when one has,” says Ken.

Cases like the Garsons are the driving force behind an independent living project underway at NRC labs in London, Ontario, in partnership with the Waterloo-based company Intelligent Senior Independent Living Spaces (iSILS).

As NRC’s Dr. Shokry Rashwan explains, “Our goal is to develop, with our private sector partners, a smart home environment that allows a senior to live safely and independently.” His colleague Dr. Weiming Shen adds that it will also be adaptable for the disabled. “Soldiers returning injured from Afghanistan are another group that we know we can help.”

So what is a smart home?

A smart home is a living space equipped with a sophisticated battery of technologies integrated into a single system that can monitor everything from the health of the inhabitants to key aspects of their living conditions.

Taking intelligent action

The smart home will include sensors that can detect falls or differences in walking patterns, monitor sleep, and track the use of appliances, heat and light in the home. This data can be assessed by the system against normal patterns and usage. Any discrepancies will be flagged as problems that require action as soon as they arise.

For example, if the stove and refrigerator have not been used over a period of time, the system would understand that the senior has not eaten during that period. Or if the senior moves into a room and there is no further movement, the system would understand that the senior is in some sort of difficulty. In each case, it would alert the appropriate responder, whether that be a family member, doctor or emergency personnel. “The system is being designed to detect problems and prevent them from becoming emergencies,” says Dr. Rashwan.

Floor plan of a smart home showing location of monitoring technologies: door sensor at the front door; stove sensor in kitchen; motion sensor lighting, lifeline distress call and impact sensor in bathroom; bed sensor and data manager in bedroom.

This floor plan shows what a future smart home could look like. The oven, for example, is equipped with a sensor to monitor use. There are motion and impact sensors to track general activity levels and monitor for falls. The “brains” of the operation is the data manager, which assesses what all the sensors are telling it and, if need be, calls for help.

The smart home could also help to keep track of health issues such as diabetes and hypertension. A senior could monitor their blood sugar levels and blood pressure with a device that transmits that data to the system. If either reading starts to move into dangerous territory, the system would automatically notify a medical contact.

Barbara Goble stands in her living room with a walker

Smart technologies could help seniors like Barbara Goble stay in their homes longer.

“This would bring a lot of people a real sense of security about their loved ones,” says Marsha Gillespie who works at the Old Forge, a non-profit community resource centre in Ottawa that helps seniors stay in their home.

“The system is being designed to detect problems and prevent them from becoming emergencies.”

Dr. Shokry Rashwan, NRC

Gillespie manages a service that has volunteers call seniors on a daily basis to check on how they are doing. Should there be no response, emergency procedures are called into play. “Obviously, a technology-based system would provide much finer detail about the senior and make it easier to define an emergency situation,” she comments.

Meeting a growing need

This is clearly a hot area for industry, and already the market is being flooded with new technologies. However, these usually address just one or two aspects of independent living. “Testing these technologies for robustness and reliability, then integrating them into a multi-faceted system that can take intelligent action are our big challenges,” says NRC’s Dr. Rashwan. 

NRC is building a sophisticated testing area in its London facility to help meet this challenge, and it is slated to open next year. As well, iSILS will offer its smart homes technology as an option in a heritage condominium conversion underway in Cambridge, Ontario.

And completing the circle, the first of the baby boomers — the biggest generation in Canada’s history — will become seniors in 2011. Over the next 20 years, this cohort will unleash a demographic tsunami that will increase the need for safe, independent living options for seniors even more. End