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Creating safer, smarter homes for seniors

Rather than move to an assisted living facility or other setting, older adults are increasingly choosing to age in place. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that more than 20 percent of the country’s population will be over the age of 65 by the year 2030, and according to the Institute on Aging, nearly a third of older adults who remain in their own homes live alone.

George Demiris, Alumni Endowed Professor at the UW School of Nursing. (University of Washington)

Crucial to enabling their independence is preventative health care – and the ability to detect health issues quickly. As part of the HEALTH-E initiative at the University of Washington School of Nursing, Alumni Endowed Professor George Demiris is working to make this happen.

Demiris is leading a study on how smart homes outfitted with sensors could allow older adults, like South Seattle resident Mary Ruiz, to maintain independence for as long as possible.

Ruiz, 76, assumed that her worsening symptoms were just the result of a bad allergy season. But a sensor placed in her apartment by Demiris’ team soon alerted her to the fact that something else might be at fault: The humidity levels in her home were troublingly low. When humidity levels drop, your nose, throat and sinuses react. So Ruiz went out and purchased a humidifier – a simple solution, but one that could not have been reached without the sensor.

Smart Home study participant Mary Ruiz. (University of Washington)

Demiris originally considered traditional technology for monitoring vital signs or catching symptoms of chronic disease. But these devices can be complex, and they often require that an older adult or a family member learn how to work them.

So instead he turned to common household devices such as video cameras, digital thermometers and door, window and motion sensors. In the right combination, Demiris discovered, these ordinary devices can turn an average house into a smart home.

The devices catch deviations from a daily routine that the person may not notice, but which can often mean something more serious over a period of time.

“If someone opens the refrigerator several times in the course of an hour, or if they’re becoming more sedentary, these could be early indicators of a specific condition,” Demiris says. Dementia. Alzheimer’s disease. Frailty. All these conditions benefit from the earliest possible detection.

Demiris brought his study to participants in their own houses. These older adults were residents at local assisted-living facilities, and they opened their homes to the research team for three months.

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A University of Washington study is examining how smart homes outfitted with sensors could allow older adults to maintain independence for as long as possible. (Provided by University of Washington) Yong Choi, a Ph.D. student in biomedical and health informatics at the UW. (University of Washington)

At the outset of the study, participants met with Demiris and research assistant Yong Choi, a Ph.D. student in biomedical and health informatics, to choose which sensors they wanted to have installed.

Next Choi set up the devices in their homes, along with a small laptop that collected all the data. The participants then went about their daily lives, sometimes forgetting the devices were there.

After collecting data for six weeks, Choi worked with the participants to turn the information into an easy-to-understand infographic that each person could choose to share with a family member or health care professional.

“This collaborative aspect of the study is key,” says Demiris, because it inspires people to take a more active role in their own health care. “For example, seeing that you watched TV on the couch for six hours is more powerful than just knowing that you should be more active.”

The initial results of Demiris’ study are promising, and several participants have taken their data to start discussions with their clinicians.

With additional support, the School of Nursing hopes to build on Demiris’ work through the creation of a new home health care simulation lab. And by focusing more on the burgeoning area of informatics, the school is poised to take on a bigger role in future health care.

“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.”

Learn more about the University of Washington’s research on smart homes.