By 2037, an estimated 10.4 million Canadians will be 65 or older, about 25 per cent of the population compared to 18 per cent in 2021. Roughly 90 per cent will want to live in their own homes for as long as possible despite becoming less independent and requiring more support.
This demographic wave, coupled with the mobility and cognition changes and medical conditions associated with aging, will create significant challenges and opportunities as demand grows for homecare services and long-term care beds.
The race is on to develop solutions and one promising approach can be found at Carleton University in Ottawa, where a team of researchers, in partnership with the Bruyère Research Institute and AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence, is developing supportive smart home systems to help older adults age in place safely and with dignity.
“We’re bringing together emerging technology, aging adults, industry partners and clinical expertise,” says Bruce Wallace, executive director of the Sensors and Analytics for Monitoring Mobility and Memory (SAM3) AGE-WELL National Innovation Hub. “It’s time to get this technology out of the laboratory and into the community.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Wallace took as many sensors as he could from his labs on campus and at Bruyère and set them up in his house to continue the research.
He’s experimenting with electronic pads under mattresses and on the floor. Wirelessly connected to a computer, the sensors track when someone gets up from bed, and motion sensors in the hallway monitor where they go.
If they are disoriented and walk into the living room at 3 a.m. instead of the bathroom—the most frequent destination for seniors at that hour—a pre-recorded voice coming from a home speaker could let them know where they are. Or, pre-emptively, the hallway and bathroom lights could turn on to guide them (and a light atop a walker could switch on as a reminder for those who use a mobility tool).
Open/closed sensors on the exterior doors of the smart home can detect whether they go outside, which is a risk for somebody suffering from dementia, and send a text or phone alert to a relative that their loved one might be wandering.
Meanwhile, door open/closed sensors on the fridge could track whether they’re preparing breakfast in the morning, and a thermal camera focused on the stove could tell whether they’re cooking something nutritious—and remind them to turn off the burner when finished.
Wallace, who has more than 100 sensors in his house, believes this research could become reality within the next few years.
People would have to be comfortable with and consent to the use of this technology, but studies show that seniors would indeed trade some privacy for greater independence, a conclusion affirmed by trials in the homes of about 20 volunteers in Ottawa.
Passive sensing is one of the keys to success. It means people won’t need to wear devices and cameras won’t capture or share images. The sensors gather data that can generate a safety alert or build a profile to help family members and healthcare professionals assess a senior’s behaviour and determine when and how to intervene.
The technology could also be used in long-term care facilities to help overnight staff keep residents safe. If somebody gets out of bed and doesn’t return within a certain amount of time, a notification could prompt staff to check in.
More than a dozen Carleton students are helping fine-tune the smart home technology. Engineering master’s student Ashi Agarwal is using an artificial intelligence-equipped camera from industry partner AltumView to measure walking speed, which can be an indicator of declining health.
“Gait analysis can tell you a lot about how somebody is doing,” says Agarwal, whose camera creates a stick figure-like image of research subjects, rather than photos or video. “This information could help doctors get insights into everyday life.”
“This leading research greatly benefits this ever-increasing demographic of the aging Canadian population,” says Rafik Goubran, Carleton’s vice-president (Research and International), a sensors and data analytics researcher and one of the leaders of SAM3. “It enables our seniors to live safety and independently in their own homes while providing hands-on multidisciplinary experience to our students.”
“Our society has a serious issue,” he says about Canada’s aging population. “How are we going to care for all these people? Technology will never replace clinicians, but it can perform a type of triage.
“At the end of the day, it’s about quality of life. People want to stay at home and remain independent for as long as they can, and this technology can help.
“My hope for aging Canadians... is that we will have supportive smart homes that will allow us to age in place."