Nov. 20, 2003 GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- At 85, Matilda is frail and forgetful. Like a growing number of Floridians, she has reached the stage when living on her own is becoming difficult. But she will avoid an assisted living facility or nursing home for now. At least she would if she were real.
Matilda is actually a life-size mannequin whose wig and school-marm spectacles symbolize her identity as an elderly person, and her home is an experimental 500-square-foot "smart house" at the University of Florida. The house melds the latest computer and sensor technology to provide automatically the assistance at home that many people need as they age.
Consisting of a fully furnished living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, the house takes up the better part of a fourth-floor computer laboratory in UF's computer science engineering building. Built into this cozy but complete living space is a mind-bending array of experimental assistive-living devices, ranging from a microwave that recognizes entrees and automatically determines how long to cook them to sensors that track an elderly person's whereabouts in the home. These devices are linked by a computer network and keep tabs on each other and, most important, the resident – whence the discretely placed electronics on Matilda's clothes.
"What this home demonstrates is the evolution from assistive devices to assistive environments," said Sumi Helal, an associate professor of computer and information science and engineering. Helal also is director of technology development for the UF Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology for Successful Aging.
Some other examples of how the smart house makes life easier for aging occupants:
If water leaks onto the floor, the house senses it and alerts the resident by cell phone. If a visitor comes to the door, sensors pinpoint which room the resident occupies, and a camera beams the visitor's picture to a TV screen there. If the resident wants to unlock the door, he or she can tell the cell phone, which then transmits a code to open the electronic latch. The rehabilitation center, funded most recently with a $4.5 million grant from the National Institute for Disability, Rehabilitation and Research, seeks to help people live alone longer and lower the cost of their care. The center's researchers have their work cut out for them: Although only 10 percent of people in their 60s require assistance in their daily lives, half of men and women 80 or older need outside help, said William Mann, director of the center, and professor and chairman of the occupational therapy department in UF's College of Health Professions.
With the oldest of 78 million baby boomers just about to reach their 60s, that spells a huge wave of assistive care needs -- and ballooning costs -- in the next two decades and beyond, he said.
"The real problem for how we're spending health-care dollars is going to occur in 20 years, but many people will need assistive care before then," he said.
Florida is especially in need of current assisted-care solutions. Nearly 9 percent of the state's population – about 1.5 million people – is 75 or older, the highest in the nation. The need is only increasing: The state's 85-plus population is projected to almost double by 2020, when Florida will be home to almost 650,000 people aged 85 or older, according to Florida State University's' Pepper Institute on Aging & Public Policy's 2002 report, "Florida's Aging Population."
Mann, who has spent more than a decade studying how technology can help alleviate disabilities associated with aging, said his work revealed elderly people have a "tremendous need" for assistive devices. His studies show that elderly people who obtain and use the devices tend to decline more slowly than those who remain unassisted – and they also cost the system less for care, he said. Contrary to the stereotype, the elderly often welcome technology. One elderly woman who received a computer told him, "'I used to wake up every morning and pray, "God, take me now," and now I wake up every morning and ask God to give me more time on the computer,'" Mann said.
The smart house proposes the next step in technology-centered home care. Contrasting the hodgepodge of disconnected assistive devices now available, it relies on a centralized computer network to deliver electronically coordinated assistance, much like an air conditioner that pumps cool air silently and automatically through the home,.
For example, with voice commands delivered to the mobile phone, a resident can turn on the lights, stereo, television, and open and close the window curtains. When he or she moves from room to room, the house senses it, turning on the television and tuning it to the proper station in whatever room the resident visits. If the resident is concerned about security, he or she can ask the mobile phone if the house is secure, and the phone then checks the doors and reports back by voice.
Helal described the smart house, which was equipped with the help of $38,000 from the engineering college, as a place where "we can try our ideas so we can see how they actually play out."
But he noted the vision is not yet complete. In the future, caregivers could use the technology to monitor the resident's health remotely. If sensors don't pick up any movement, the caregivers could call the resident or send someone out to check. The house could also "prompt" patients with dementia, who frequently forget what they're doing mid-task. "We are evolving from pulling a Lifeline-type device to getting the entire environment to help you," Helal said.
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