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The Globe and Mail

Sensors, remote monitoring could improve quality of life for seniors

Late at night in a rural farmhouse near Hastings, Neb., not too long ago, huge circus elephants ran amok in the bedroom of an 82-year-old woman. Stomping and crashing around the bed, the beasts led a noisy, colourful parade of clowns and acrobats.

At least, that's what she was imagining.

Over the next two nights, the elderly woman slept for barely three hours as the cacophony roared around her. Exhausted and delirious, she tossed and turned in her bed, which was equipped with a high-tech sleeping pad monitored remotely by a nurse from the U.S.-based Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society. Noting her lack of sleep, the nurse called the woman and was told everything was fine. But according to the data, everything wasn't fine. When the nurse made a house call, the elderly woman broke down and tearfully confessed her hallucinations.

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"The nurse immediately asked her if she was on any new medications, and it turned out her doctor had just given her a prescription for a new medication for early onset Alzheimer's disease," which had a very slight side effect of hallucinations, says Jeff Noce, CEO of WellAWARE Systems. "In this case, she was not going to tell anybody what was going on, because she was afraid they were going to institutionalize her."

Without his company's wired sleeping pad, which is able to distinguish between deep sleep and the weight of someone simply lying in bed, Mr. Noce says he's confident the woman would have eventually hurt herself. "She never had to go to the emergency room, she never fell and subsequently we were able to be proactive. Her medication was adjusted and she was fine the next day."

This situation and countless others like it, he says, are why our society needs to embrace technology to help care for an aging population. Mr. Noce notes that medical professionals are usually first to turn to technologies that can improve patient care. But in Canada, critics say the adoption of technology is too slow. Our seniors may be missing out on tools and systems that could be making huge changes in their quality of life.

At the forefront of these developments is a conceptual system called Ambient Assisted Living (AAL), which is based around passive sensors located throughout homes or rooms in senior living facilities. Ranging from fall and seizure detectors, heat sensors on stoves, flood sensors in bathrooms and sleep sensors in beds, these devices are in development as healthcare providers and governments implement ways to care for the elderly.

"It's simply a matter of when, not if, these products make it into the home," says Alex Mihailidis, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in the development of intelligent home systems for elder care and wellness and director of the school's Intelligent Assistive Technology and Systems Lab. "I think the acceptability of these technologies is increasing every day because people are realizing that the technology can help keep them at home."

Ten years ago, when Mr. Mihailidis started researching how technology could help the elderly, he was routinely questioned if it was really necessary or was accused of developing products that would replace of human caregivers. Now, he says, research groups worldwide are working on technologies that could facilitate living with physical or cognitive impairments. Many will hit the market soon.

But just because a product is ready for the market, doesn't mean the market is ready for the product. Mr. Mihailidis and his research group have been looking for industry partners for their motion-activated fall detection system to no avail. He says it's not just his product that's slow to receive private investment, and that Canada is "very far behind" Europe and the United States in adopting the new tools.

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Andrew Sixsmith, a professor at Simon Fraser University and director of the school's Gerontology Research Centre, agrees. He says the federal government has shown little interest in funding elder-specific assisted living research. Canada's population over 65 is set to rise by 126 per cent between 2000 and 2030. In fact, the number of people 65 and older will from jump to more than 21 per cent of the population by 2026 from 13 per cent now.

"We're going to have increased demand for health services, because the need for services is directly age-related, generally speaking. If you've got more 80-year-olds, you're going to have more illnesses and requirements," says Mr. Sixsmith. "So we'll either have to cut the services that we provide, or try to increase productivity, or move to new ways of providing those services." Even simple devices, like those that turn kitchen devices or lights on and off, could make a difference, he says.

The new gadgets will also have to be accessible and inexpensive enough to catch the interest of consumers, particularly if they're expected to pay for them, says Harry Wang, director of health and mobile products at Parks Associates, a research and consulting firm that focuses on emerging technology. In a report issued in August, Parks Associates predicted that the U.S. wireless home healthcare market would become a $4.4-billion (U.S.) industry by 2013.

Looking even farther down the road, Mr. Wang anticipates robots will also enter the field as the high-tech healthcare tools of the future, as they could take the strain off human caregivers. "If you look at the senior situation in the U.S. right now, it's really scary. This is a societal thing we need to address."

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