New technology uses sensors to collect information at home and support healthy aging

In recent years, smart home devices have become more and more popular. Items such as smart thermostats, home security systems and home assistants are becoming commonplace in many homes. These devices are often controlled by cell phones and collect data to help us live safer and more comfortable lives. But what if devices like this could also support our health? Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging (RIA) Research Scientists Plinio Morita and Jen Boger, along with a team of researchers across Canada want to know just that.

Program to Accelerate Technologies for Homecare (PATH) is a nationwide initiative that aims to provide opportunities to test home healthcare technologies that can support older adults and homecare patients to live well and safely in their homes. The project has 4 separate academic research partners and several strategic partners including AgeWell, Canada’s Technology and Aging Network, and SmartOne, a company who develops smart home automation products.

As part of the PATH project, the RIA supports several researchers, including Morita, in our Smart Apartment living lab. This lab looks like a typical senior’s apartment, complete with kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. Morita brings in sensors and other smart devices to test how they can collect information to support activities of daily living.

“These sensors are attached to everyday objects like the fridge and we can see information about how much energy it uses throughout the day,” says Morita. “With that information, we know how often the resident is eating. Say the person is losing weight and their health care providers aren’t sure why, we could look at this data and see how often the person is opening their fridge to prepare a meal. If it isn’t as often or on the right schedule, we can help them by setting up regular reminders to ensure they are eating.”

The ultimate goal of Morita’s work is to create sensors that help older adults and homecare patients live well in their homes as long as they can, and support older adults in senior living to be as active as possible. The technology used is inexpensive, and can not only monitor behaviour, but be extremely helpful to create reminders for everyday tasks like eating, drinking and turning on lights. For older adults living with dementia, these reminders could allow them to remain independent for much longer.

Though this research is waiting for pandemic restrictions to be lifted to start working with older adults, Morita is excited about working with Schlegel Villages’ residents. “The lab is right inside the RIA building, so we have the unique opportunity to be able to work with Schlegel Village residents at University Gates. We will start by asking folks to complete some scripted tasks, like making a cup of coffee or getting ready for bed. We will use the sensors to collect data on their habits, then share that data with the other PATH sites. From there, the data will be used to see what habits are common and how we can use the sensors and reminders to help folks stay healthy.”

To learn more about the PATH project, visit: pathplatform.ca

This story originally appeared in the May edition of Research Matters.