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Virginia Home Can Monitor Seniors

January 23, 2002

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) _ Jim Humphries stretches over the kitchen counter, rummaging through his shelves for a box of tea. If he feels on display, it doesn’t show.

But his house is watching him closely.

Seven redeye sensors track his every move, blinking on and off as he walks past. There are sensors in his refrigerator and kitchen cabinets. Another soon will be installed at leg-level in the living room to monitor how Humphries is walking.

This unblinking ``smart house″ may seem a bit Orwellian, but its designers hope to use it in a benevolent way. They are checking up on people suffering from chronic conditions, such as Alzheimer’s or osteoarthritis, whose symptoms are gradual and often overlooked.

By watching the person’s activities over a long period of time, a smart home would notice small changes that may indicate bigger problems in the future. A slight limp, for instance, or differences in eating habits or the morning routine.

The Medical Automation Research Center in Charlottesville has been working on the house for more than a year with the idea of helping independent-minded seniors who aren’t ready to relinquish control of their lives to their children or a nursing home.

Project supervisor Robin Felder hopes to someday build a system that can monitor its residents’ blood pressure and check if they’re taking their medication. Researchers also are working on toilet sensors that could conduct a urinalysis and a kitchen console that would chart a person’s diet by scanning the bar codes on grocery packages.

``Everybody I talk to has the same story of trying to care for a parent or grandparent as they get older,″ Felder said. ``Somebody’s got to deal with it, and hopefully technology can ease the burden.″

If successful, the technology also would become available for the burgeoning group of seniors who live at home. During the past decade, the number of people older than 65 grew from 31.2 million to 35 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly 80 percent of this group are homeowners, according to the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.

``There’s a definite need for something like this,″ said AAHSA spokesman Bruce Rosenthal.

``Many people know they have a progressive ailment and know they’re getting up in years, but they’re not at the point of checking into a nursing home,″ Rosenthal said. ``This would really give them _ and their adult children _ piece of mind.″

Last spring, Felder persuaded tennis buddy Humphries _ a 42-year-old registered nurse in perfect health _ to become the guinea pig for the idea and turn his brick frame house into a research lab, indefinitely.

Researchers fastened motion sensors to the walls with blue poster putty, each sending a signal to a computer in his study.

``There was an initial reluctance to do this, knowing that they were tracking me all the time,″ Humphries said. ``But within days, I got used to the little flashing lights.″

The main challenge is to determine how to accurately interpret the massive amount of information coming each day from the sensors.

So far, Steve Kell, project manager for the smart house, has found only minor details about Humphries’ lifestyle: ``He doesn’t watch TV _ he listens to it from the kitchen.″

But somewhere within the data log, researchers hope to eventually find his key behavior patterns _ when he wakes up, what he generally eats for breakfast, if he showers every day. With that information, they can program the smart home to watch if Humphries starts to deviate from that pattern over time.

The center hopes to cram this technology into a small appliance with a simple plug and a few sensors that anyone could install, Felder said.

Companies offering the smart home service would receive the data, analyze the information and send health reports via the Internet back to the smart home, or the home of a concerned relative. The system also would be programmed to quickly notify a family member if the person didn’t get out of bed, stayed in the bathroom too long or seemed in some other way to be in trouble.

The sensors should be reliable as long as people remember to replace their batteries, Kell said. There also could be problems if the sensors aren’t arranged so that they watch the entire house or if their gaze overlaps with other sensors, which would confuse the data.

A basic monitoring system using motion sensors is under development. Carillion Biomedical Institute, the center’s business partner, could begin marketing the system in about a year. The kitchen and gait sensors could be available a few years later.

The entire system would cost only about $300, Felder said. Users also would have to pay an additional fee for some watchdog service that monitors the system to make sure the person is in good shape.

Despite the possible benefits to seniors, there is, however, one troubling aspect of the smart house. The information would be a gold mine for market research companies looking for better ways to sell products.

``Those ethical issues may come up: Who has access to this information, who’s monitoring this data?″ Rosenthal said.

Felder said the center does plan to provide universities with the data once it’s been published in a scientific study.

``We won’t make anything available that’s not been scrubbed of its personal identification and the community where it came from,″ he said.


On the Net:

Medical Automation Research Center: http://marc.med.virginia.edu/

AAHSA: http://www.aahsa.org/

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