Nashville companies using high-tech systems to target seniors 'aging in place'

From The Tennessean • July 23, 2013

As Don Rogers cooks breakfast, puts his clothes in the dryer or works the crossword puzzle in his bedroom, a little white box in the corner of the room monitors his every move.

Tennessean pictureNo, Rogers is not under government surveillance. He’s part of a trial program of a high-tech monitoring system for seniors at The Blakeford at Green Hills independent living facility.

There are motion sensors in each room of Rogers’ apartment that are also supplemented by sensors that track a variety of activities — from noting when his front door opens and closes, to a pressure pad under his mattress that keeps track of the amount of time he spends in bed each day.

Ultimately, the system learns Rogers’ daily routines and can send alerts to Blakeford staff members to check on him if he varies too far from his daily norms.

“I think it’s good for them to know if I’m moving or not moving,” Rogers said. “It’s another level of assurance.”

Systems like this are becoming more common as more seniors opt for living at home — specialists call it “aging in place” — while still staying under the watchful eye of concerned family members and caregivers. As the baby boomer population begins to hit retirement, families face the challenge of supporting these seniors, particularly if they live alone.

And as this market grows, more companies — including several in Nashville — are targeting this demographic.

'Logical' solution

Traditionally, seniors living alone have had the option of wearing a “panic button” that they could press to call for help, also known as a personal emergency response system, or PERS.

However, many seniors forget or choose not to wear the button. Experts say some seniors won’t press the button even after a fall for fear of being made to move into a facility. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the leading cause of injury and death for adults older than 65.

Enter Care Technology Systems of Nashville, which uses “fall detection by logic,” as company founder Jim Anderson calls it.

The sensors work together to determine whether an emergency might have occurred. For example, if Rogers gets up in the night, doesn’t return to the bed for more than 15 minutes, the front door doesn’t open or the motion sensors don’t pick up any movement, the system sends an alert to the staff on duty suggesting they check on him.

Care Technology Systems currently is conducting a trial of the system in senior facilities, but its system and others are heading into the home market, as well.

Big market for tech firms

Seniors aging in place provide a sizable market for technology companies, as their children and grandchildren rely heavily on such technology to keep track of their loved ones. Now, checking up on mom or dad could be just a click, text or email away.

Local companies have joined the national surge in monitoring options for seniors, offering everything from GPS trackers for safety on the road to motion sensors monitoring activity at home.

Families can now evaluate grandma’s needs in stages. Nashville-based splitsecnd offers GPS tracking of a family member’s vehicle and access to an emergency call center. Another Nashville startup, Evermind, monitors the use of such devices as a bedside lamp or toaster. Care Technology Systems adds motion-sensor technology to the emergency call button for falls.

Researchers at the University of Missouri aim to go further. Their experiments show that certain automatic monitoring can spot changes — such as restlessness in bed or a drop in daytime activity — that typically occur 10 days to two weeks before a fall or a trip to the doctor or hospital. For instance, a change in gait, such as starting to take shorter or slower steps, can signal increased risk for falls. This could help medical professional intervene and check out a patient to help prevent a fall before it happens.

Moral conflicts

Protecting grandma may seem fine to some families, but she might not always think so.

“I think there are some moral conflicts that are based on freedom and safety,” said Beverly Patnaik, academic director of the School of TransformAging at Lipscomb University.

Patnaik noted a few key questions that concern her.

• “Does (monitoring) lead to more social isolation?” For instance, if family members get constant alerts about activity, will they be inclined to visit grandma less often?

• “Does it affect the autonomy of an older adult?” Patnaik said seniors might modify their daily behavior if they know they are being constantly monitored.

• “Do you want your family and physicians to know if you’re getting more prone to falls?” While the new technologies are designed to keep seniors independent longer, the data the systems amass ultimately may lead families to encourage Grandma to go to a facility, Patnaik said.

Lauran Neergaard of The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Eva Botkin-Kowacki at 615-259-8287 or ebotkin@tennessean.com.