Smart homes could keep seniors living independently longer

SEATTLE — The school of nursing at the University of Washington is leveraging the power of everyday items to turn houses into smart homes for seniors, allowing them to live independently longer.

Researchers say the seniors themselves are at the center of the decision-making process, which is an important differences between the UW study and other similar smart home studies. They hope this approach is more empowering by allowing seniors to be at the center of the decision-making process, easing the feelings of having their lives controlled by family members or clinicians.

Seventy-six-year-old Mary Ruiz is one of the participants in the study. She lives alone in her small south Seattle apartment.

“I like to read, write and think, I was always kind of a book-worm,” said Ruiz. “I go to the grocery store, sometimes I go to the doctor, sometimes the library, mostly things I want to do,” she added.

She says she enjoys living life on her own terms at her age.

“Everybody likes their home, they can make their own decisions about where to put things," she said.

Ruiz says a study like this will help a lot of seniors.

UW research assistant Yong Choi outfitted her home with various sensors for the study.

“Multi-sensor here tracks temperature, humidity, luminosity and motion," said Choi.

The small devices are available at most hardware stores. Researchers designed the software to interpret the data they generate to be easy to understand and relevant to seniors.

Ruiz decides what kind of sensors she wants and where to put them. In her home, door sensors tracked when she comes and goes from the apartment, a bedroom sensor tracks luminosity and motion.

"It’ll get the trend when she goes to bed, when she wakes up," said Choi.

Ruiz said the bedroom sensor made her aware of her night owl patterns, something she says she'd like to change.

“I’m working on that, because I see that as an issue, I’d rather be a day person," said Ruiz.

In her living room, environmental sensors track humidity, something that was of particular interest to Ruiz.

"I found out the humidity level in my apartment was lower than that of most of the other people in the study, and I realized that could lead to other problems like allergies and infections," said Ruiz.

She fixed the problem with a simple humidifier that uses the principle of evaporation to adjust levels. She said after using the small device, the atmosphere feels much better now.

Data from the sensors are stored on the cloud in real-time.

Dr. George Demiris, a professor at the School of Nursing and vice chair for informatics education leading the study, designed the algorithms to analyze the data.

"For example, if there is a lot of motion in this area, you'll see these points change color," said Demiris, pointing to a small graph with Ruiz's apartment layout.

Although family members and clinicians could monitor data in real-time, Demiris says that's not the point.

"We can learn a lot of people’s activities in the home from door sensors, motion sensors, but when you put them all together hopefully you can get a comprehensive idea of what they’re doing at home and more importantly whenever they’re not doing what they would be normally doing, so we have a deviation from their normal behavior pattern," said Demiris.

He says the hope is to detect potential health or behavior issues before they become problematic.

“If someone opens the refrigerator several times over the course of an hour, or if they’re becoming more sedentary or using the bathroom more frequently, these could all be early indicators of a specific condition or health issue,” said Demiris. "In some cases you can easily identify a problem, in other cases you have data that prompts you to look further into what that problem may be."

He says this study can be a pro-active approach to intervention.

"Another hypothesis we have is if you intervene earlier you can prevent the occurrence of a catastrophic event."

A humidity issue with a simple solution is just the beginning of what this study could show. Researchers say the results are promising and hope these smart homes for seniors enable them and family members to continue living their final years exactly how they want.

"I'm having a lot of fun, I have a lot of friends here, it's a good life," said Ruiz.

Eventually, Demiris hopes that the study will show assisted-living facilities and retirement communities that sensors should be standard features in each residence.

“We have these incredible technologies that, when put together, can help us better understand our daily lives and needs,” says Demiris. “I believe that technology can empower more people, especially older adults and their families, to become actively involved in their own health care.”