How Smart Tech Will Take Care of Grandma

Motion sensors watch an elderly man’s movement around his home

By Kiona Smith-Strickland

Lena Almquist, a Giraff robot and Malin Nilsson at the 4th Annual Elderly Festival in Örebro Sweden.


February 4, 2014 12:30 PM

Motion sensors watch an elderly man’s movement around his home, looking for stumbles or extended stillness that could mean a fall or a medical emergency. Smart appliances look for changes in a woman’s routine and alert caregivers to possible distress. An automated home-safety assistant offers an Alzheimer’s patient a gentle reminder to turn off the stove before he walks away.

The great hope for senior care is that smart technology will provide an assist that helps older people live independently and stay in their homes rather than have to move to an assisted living center or nursing home. The question is, what shape will that assistance take? Out-of-the-way, non-intrusive sensors? Or actual robots, like the happy little helper in Robot & Frank? Some tech companies have already begun to design systems of both kinds.

Smart Home in a Box?

At Washington State University (WSU), computer science professor Diane Cook and psychology professor Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe have developed what they call a smart home in a box. Wall-mounted sensors monitor a person’s movement around the home, while other sensors track the status of water faucets, stovetops, and other appliances. An automated system can speak up and remind the resident to turn off the stove or alert him or her to other home safety concerns.

As the sensor network gathers data about the resident’s activities, it relies on machine learning to recognize normal routines and sends a message to medical personnel or family caregivers if something changes suddenly. A March 2013 grant is funding research that will determine how to bring the technology to the commercial market.

Meet Giraff

In Europe, robotics researchers from Sweden’s Örebro University are moving a tall, long-necked, blue robot named Giraff and a network of sensors into the homes of elderly volunteers. Five residents of Örebro have already had sensors installed, and the test will expand to five homes in Rome and another five in Malaga, Spain, next year.

The sensor network combines body-worn sensors that measure blood pressure, temperature, and other vital signs with wall-mounted motion sensors and pressure sensors in beds and sofas and under carpets. Information about daily activities and potential distress is transmitted to caregivers.

Giraff, the blue remote-control robot, is skinny and tall, about the height of an average person’s shoulder, and has a long neck with a display screen for a face. The screen, along with a set of speakers, allows caregivers, friends, and family to video-chat with the resident using a system similar to Skype.

The Örebro team says patients will determine who receives the sensor data and which data to share. They also decide who gets access to Giraff—whether that’s a designated caregiver, close family members, or a friend or relative who wants to drop in for a futuristic chat.

Home Safety Versus Privacy

Constant monitoring may give peace of mind to physicians and family members, but some seniors may find it too Orwellian. So proponents of the home-safety technology try to mitigate privacy concerns. Cook and Schmitter-Edgecombe at WSU say their “smart home in a box” leaves out the cameras and microphones usually found in home-safety surveillance products, mostly due to concerns about user privacy. The Örebro team emphasizes the control that patients have over transmission of their data and access to Giraff.

Still, motion detectors can reveal a lot of information about personal activities. Researchers at the University of Missouri use a modified Kinect to detect changes in how a patient walks; at that level of detail, some might question whether a high-end motion detector really is less intrusive than a camera.

However, for many seniors, the alternative to intrusive tech may be an assisted-living facility, where the privacy compromises happen in person and the bills run into the tens of thousands of dollars per year. As a person’s risk of a fall or a medical emergency increases, so does the importance of a quick response from caregivers. With new monitoring technology, the need for on-site staff might be lessened, and their checking in might be more discreet. Personal choices will always vary, but some may be willing to accept the trade-off.

Read more: How Smart Tech Will Take Care of Grandma – Popular Mechanics

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