High-Tech Apartment Being Put to the Test as Way to Improve Health Care in Senior Community
An elderly resident in an independent living community has gained a considerable amount of weight over the last 24 hours. She hasn’t left her apartment for quite some time, failing to show for afternoon crafts. From the monitoring system that she has in her Smart Care apartment, a notification is sent to a care provider that something isn’t right. The readings from her bed verify the abnormal weight gain, a sign of congestive heart failure, a diagnosis she already has. Her nurse practitioner will soon be on the way to evaluate and manage her condition, just in time.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington hope that intelligent care technology in apartments and homes in the future will reduce risks and costs encountered by older adults and those with disabilities who want to live independently. Such an apartment, filled with special sensors that measure the health of its occupants and compile data that could detect illness or injury, debuted in May in Fort Worth, Texas.
The 900-square-foot, two-bedroom abode is part of a five-year project funded in part by a $600,000 federal grant.
“Ultimately, Smart Care will positively impact senior citizens, people with disabilities, and injured veterans,” said U.S. Rep Joe Barton (R-Arlington), who supported the funding. “It will also save money for people across the Dallas/Fort Worth area and nationwide by reducing the number of repeated trips to hospitals for some residents.”
Smart Care apartment knows the resident
The apartment looks like any other one at the Lakewood Village Senior Living Community on Fort Worth’s east side. But underneath floors, behind mirrors and inside beds are sensors that monitor the resident’s health and activity.
The centerpiece of the unit is the stone-like floor, with sensors under each tile that record walking gaits and weight. In the monitoring room next door, which serves as mission control, movement is tracked in red over a floor plan grid and readings are recorded. Stationary movement may suggest a fall, or weight postings over the course of a few hours or days could indicate onset of illness.
Inside the bathroom, a special camera embedded in the mirror will tell researchers about day-to-day- heart rate, facial expression and skin color. Other systems detect whether medication is being properly managed or if the resident is not sleeping well or staying in bed too long.
The kitchen is outfitted with smart appliances like a microwave, range and refrigerator that remember users, and a lift-chair helps residents stand. Touchless faucets and toilets make it easier for residents to turn water on or flush. Connected exercise equipment awaits in the spare bedroom.
To top it off, the resident doesn’t have to be wired with monitors or, depending on a medical condition, have to manually record readings like weight and blood pressure. For elderly residents who are prone to forget, the automation can be a lifesaver.
“You don’t have to wear anything,” said Kathryn Daniel, an associate professor and director of the Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Program at UTA. “The apartment just knows you. It’s about establishing norms and knowing when somebody gets outside their threshold.”