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July 10, 2013

High-tech gadgets monitor seniors' safety at home

(Continued)

WASHINGTON — "We were blown away that we could actually detect this," said nursing professor Marilyn Rantz, an aging-in-place specialist who is leading the research. She compares it to "a vital sign of my physical function."

Why would the gadgets work? That monitor under the mattress can measure pulse and respiratory patterns to see if heart failure is worsening before someone realizes he or she is becoming short of breath. More nighttime bathroom trips can indicate a brewing urinary tract infection.

A change in gait, such as starting to take shorter or slower steps, can signal increased risk for a fall. Basic motion sensors can't detect that. So Rantz's team adapted the Microsoft Kinect 3-D camera, developed for video games, to measure subtle changes in walking. (Yes, it can distinguish visitors.)

The researchers installed the sensor package in apartments at the university-affiliated TigerPlace community and in a Cedar Falls, Iowa, senior complex. On-site nurses received automatic emails about significant changes in residents' activity. One study found that after a year, residents who agreed to be monitored were functioning better than an unmonitored control group, presumably because nurses intervened sooner at signs of trouble, Rantz said.

The bigger question is whether simply alerting a loved one, not a nurse, might also help. Now, with a new grant from the National Institutes of Health, Rantz will begin expanding the research to see how this monitoring works in different senior housing — and this time, participants can decide if they'd like a family member or friend to get those alerts, in addition to a nurse.

Rantz says embedding sensors in the home is important because too many older adults forget or don't want to wear those older emergency-call buttons — including Rantz's own mother, who lay helpless on her floor for eight hours after tripping and badly breaking a shoulder. Rantz said her mother never fully recovered, and six months later died.

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