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Senior living goes high tech

Sensors, monitors and other 'gray technology' will help seniors stay healthy and in their own homes in the future - and the future is here
by: Jim Clark Audrey Mitchell’s Northeast Portland apartment is part of ORCATECH’s Living Laboratory, which tests high-tech tools designed to help older adults maintain a high quality of life as they age in place.

Audrey Mitchell's apartment represents the wave of the future for older Americans. As Mitchell, 77, moves through her neat-as-a-pin one-bedroom dwelling at Holladay Park Plaza in Northeast Portland, where she has lived almost nine years, small wall-mounted sensors can tell when she leaves or enters her apartment. They track her as she heads from the bathroom to the living room. They monitor her walking pace - is she moving at her usual speed or slower than normal?

A gadget on Mitchell's phone shows when she's talking to someone and for how long. In the kitchen, a sensor under the refrigerator door is activated each time she opens and closes the door.

Mitchell also has a computer outfitted with Skype, the software application that lets her make voice and video calls over the Internet with friends and relatives, including her 76-year-old brother Gene Cramer in Paradise, Calif. Mitchell wears hearing aids and has trouble hearing calls on land-line phones, so Skype is great for her, she says.

And she doesn't mind all the high-tech wiring one bit.

'The monitors don't bother me. I don't feel they're intrusive,' says the retired legal administrator who once worked for a law office that used lots of different types of technology.

Mitchell's home is part of the 'Living Laboratory' set up by Oregon Health and Science University's Oregon Center for Aging and Technology, a research facility known as ORCATECH. The living lab network, installed in about 30 homes of seniors in the Portland area, allows ORCATECH researchers to test and evaluate technology aimed at helping adults maintain their health and independence as they age.

And the number of seniors at risk of losing their independence is expected to rise as the nation's population continues to rapidly age. By 2030, the United States will have about 72.1 million people age 65 and older, more than twice their number in 2000, according to the federal Administration on Aging.

OHSU is one of the nation's institutions and private companies that are leading the effort to develop 'gray technology' to optimize quality of life for the elderly. Research and development also is going on at Beaverton-based Intel Corp., which collaborates with OHSU and helps fund ORCATECH.

Gray technology is used determine seniors' physical and cognitive well-being by monitoring their daily activity - whether they're eating enough, sleeping well, taking their medications. It also could ward off problems before they occur - for example, someone falling and breaking a hip. 'We're looking not at 'Can we detect a fall?' but 'Can we detect a change in your gait that might predict or prevent a fall?' ' says Steve Agritelly, director of health research and innovation for Intel.

Intel has collaborated with a company in Ireland to build 'gait analysis research platforms,' Agritelly says. 'They've developed sensors that go on the leg, built software to watch the way people walk, how high their leg swings, (whether they) are swaying,' he says. 'And the next step is, if you can detect, can you intervene?'

Sensors also can help doctors gather information from their patients more efficiently, says Dr. Jeffrey Kaye, a neurology professor at OHSU and director of ORCATECH. The typical visit to a doctor's office lasts 12 to 15 minutes, 'and we're spending 95 percent of our time gathering information,' Kaye says.

'So we decided there's a better way, and that is, what if you could collect the information every day in the context of what people are doing? And in a way that the person doesn't have to fill out forms, unintrusively?

'Ten to 20 years from now, instead of 90 percent of the doctor's visit being taken up with 'Are you sleeping OK, are you taking your meds?' the information will already be there.'

A model home

The nerve center of ORCATECH's living laboratory is nestled in an OHSU building in Portland's South Waterfront area. Set up to look like a two-room apartment, this is the Point of Care Laboratory, where high-tech equipment is tested before it goes into the 30 living-lab homes, including Audrey Mitchell's apartment.

One item being tested is a 'smart' pillbox that lets researchers know if and when each pill compartment is opened 'so we can tell when they're taking their meds,' says Nicole Larimer, senior research assistant. 'It tells us a lot about people's habits. We found about 10 different ways people use pillboxes.'

Larimer says researchers hope to include the smart pillbox in another study ORCATECH is conducting, this one involving about 200 Portland-area homes outfitted with high-tech gear to assess changes resulting from aging.

Another piece of gray technology: a sensor built into a chair pad, 'so you can tell if Mom is at home sitting in the chair and when she gets up,' Larimer says. 'And if she uses a walker, there's a sensor on it too.'

In the Point of Care Laboratory 'bedroom,' load cells are placed under each bed leg and connected to a computer to detect the amount of pressure on the mattress when someone lies down. This monitors the sleeper's movement, heartbeat, respiratory rate and other data. When this system is set up in one of the living-lab homes, it collects and sends the data back to ORCATECH.

These high-tech tools are hand-built at OHSU, Larimer says, and someday most could find their way into the market as consumer products.

There's also 'Celia,' a robot designed by Vgo Communications of Massachusetts that ORCATECH is testing for the company. Celia operates like Skype - it has a camera, video screen and remote control so users can move Celia from room to room while communicating with each other online.

Audrey Mitchell had Celia in her home for a few days, and the robot was one of her favorite gadgets. Her daughter, who lives in Arkansas, got to use Celia remotely. 'We had a good time with it,' Mitchell says.

Celia has visited at least eight living-lab homes so far, Larimer says. 'People loved it. We're interested in feedback from the seniors who test this. That's why we have the living lab - to test this stuff and ask people if they'd want it in their homes.'

ORCATECH is getting ready to expand the living lab to include a total of 50 homes, Larimer says. All participants are volunteers.

Mitchell has been part of the living lab study since it began about six years ago. Over the years she's tested 'gray technology' ranging from a GPS-equipped cell phone to a mattress pad that monitored her sleep.

'It's to all of our benefit, what's coming in the future - anything that's going to help in the future,' Mitchell says. 'I find nothing bad about it, frankly. And I can see the possibilities of what that robot can do.'