Vernon and Jeanne Barr, ages 96 and 89 respectively, are guinea pigs of sorts. They are part of a scientific experiment that uses video gaming technology -- the same technology used in Xbox game system to be exact -- to detect the onset of illness and protect seniors against falls.
The couple has lived in the TigerPlace Aging-in-Place residences in Columbia, Missouri for the past five years. Their one-bedroom apartment has a kitchen and a porch where Vernon likes to putter around with his plants. It is also outfitted with motion detection sensors over each doorway, high-tech sensors embedded in their mattress and a Microsoft Kinect box mounted on the ceiling to detect falls. The data collected by this equipment is analyzed by University of Missouri researchers who use the information to determine changes in the Barrs' health and behavior patterns.
For example the motion detectors can report if Vernon or Jeanne are getting up to use the bathroom an excessive number of times each night; if that happens, a nurse is sent in to evaluate for a urinary problem. If one of them has a restless night's sleep, the researchers are able to take note of it and investigate why; restlessness at night may be due to anxiety or depression. If one of them wanders off in the middle of the night in what might be an early Alzheimer's episode, the motion detector reports it.
The Barrs, both retired teachers, are part of 65 residents participating in the research study on fall detection -- that's the Xbox technology supplied by Microsoft Kinect. While the technology is still being refined, Vernon says he doesn't mind being a scientific study sample. He's happy his participation might contribute toward something that makes it possible for seniors who want to keep living independently to do so as long as possible. He says he has fallen three times in the five years he's lived at TigerPlace and likes the idea that one day a fall might actually be anticipated -- and prevented (we have tips on how to prevent falls at home here).
Jessie Back, the TigerPlace social worker, says that the bed sensor embedded under the mattress is so sensitive that it can detect pulse rate, respiration and changes in breathing. An alert is sent out to a clinician if there is a major change.
Privacy is of course protected and the Microsoft Kinect box that is mounted near the ceiling captures images of the Barrs that aren't identifiable. "It's more like a walking blob," Back said. But by studying the couple's walking patterns, the technology can detect changes in gait and stride. "It is helping us detect stumbles and trips, hoping to detect and avoid falls. There is a lot of information that is gleaned from something like a new sway in a person's gait," said Back.
As for Jeanne Barr, she says she is seldom aware of the sensors and really doesn't much think about them. "We're both interested in science and experiments; this didn't cost us anything and might help us -- so we figured 'Why not?'"
And while the goal of the experiment might be to enable seniors to keep living in their homes (an increasing number of older Americans want to age in place) Jeanne Barr is actually quite happy to be living in an assisted living facility. "I have a lot of things wrong with me -- macular degeneration, problems with my right foot, a pacemaker. For years, I didn't go anywhere except to doctors' offices. But I didn't realize just how isolated I was until I got here and now have so many people to talk to!"
Marjorie Skubic, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the MU College of Engineering, and Marilyn Rantz, a nursing profession in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing, have used motion-sensing technology to monitor changes in residents’ health for several years at TigerPlace. They recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to expand their work to a facility in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
“The sensors help identify the small problems -- before they become big problems,” Rantz said. “Based on the data collected by the sensors, health providers can offer timely interventions designed to change the trajectory in individuals’ functional decline.”