Carleton’s Research on Sensors Helps Seniors Stay Independent Longer

By Lucy Juneau
Photos by Chris Roussakis

Bruyère Research Institute, Carleton University and the AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence launched the AGE-WELL National Innovation Hub in Ottawa on Nov. 27, 2017. The hub contains two research facilities called the Sensors and Analytics for Monitoring Mobility and Memory (SAM3) – with one location at Ottawa’s Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital and the other at Carleton. These research centres will focus on sensor-based smart technologies addressing mobility and memory challenges faced by older adults.

“When mobility goes down, we lose our independence and quality of life,” said Frank Knoefel, a physician and senior investigator at Bruyère Research Institute.

At the Bruyère location, researchers will be using a model apartment to test sensors and develop innovative tools to address concerns with seniors living independently. One sensor monitors the fridge to make sure it’s closed and how often it’s opened. Sensors can be put in stoves to make sure they are turned off and to check the usage.

“The data coming from these non-invasive sensors can be instantly analyzed to detect and report any signs of problems among older adults before they become serious,” explained Rafik Goubran, Carleton’s vice-president (Research and International).

The data collected from the sensors, such as how often someone is getting out of bed and if there’s any difficulty doing it, can be sent to a phone app or used to contact someone immediately in case of an emergency.

“Mobility and memory problems are among the most common challenges experienced by older adults. This unique initiative will help us to come up with new solutions that support independence and aging in place while reducing caregiver burden,” said Alex Mihailidis, scientific director of AGE-WELL, Canada’s Technology and Aging Network.

For example, an automated voice can tell someone to go back to bed or turn on lights when they sense movement.

For the first time in Canadian history, the national census in 2016 calculated more seniors than children in the population. The percentage of elderly people will continue to increase as the baby boomers age and life expectancy is on the rise. Additionally, more than 500,000 Canadians have dementia, with that numbering doubling in the next 20 years, according to Knoefel.

Family caregiver Mary Huang says there’s a growing number of people who cannot be left alone but often no one to help them.

“With the changing demographics, there are fewer children and family members to share the load of caring for aging seniors,” said Huang.

With the wait list for long-term care at an all-time high in Ontario, sensors that can extend how long  seniors can live independently at home become even more important.

“Solutions that are quite simple from an engineering perspective can have a huge impact on people’s well-being,” said Goubran, who will conduct SAM3 research at Carleton in the new Institute for Advanced Research and Innovation in Smart Environments (ARISE), opening in April 2018.