By 2037, an estimated 10.4 million Canadians will be 65 or older, about 25 per cent of the population compared to 18 per cent in 2021. Roughly 90 per cent will want to live in their own homes for as long as possible despite becoming less independent and requiring more support.
This demographic wave, coupled with the mobility and cognition changes and medical conditions associated with aging, will create significant challenges and opportunities as demand grows for homecare services and long-term care beds.
The race is on to develop solutions and one promising approach can be found at Carleton University in Ottawa, where a team of researchers, in partnership with the Bruyère Research Institute and AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence, is developing supportive smart home systems to help older adults age in place safely and with dignity.
Bruce Wallace, executive director of the Sensors and Analytics for Monitoring Mobility and Memory (SAM3) AGE-WELL National Innovation Hub says sensor technology could offer a solution. “It’s time to get this technology out of the laboratory and into the community.”
He’s experimenting with electronic pads under mattresses and on the floor. Wirelessly connected to a computer, the sensors track when someone gets up from bed, and motion sensors in the hallway monitor where they go.
If they are disoriented and walk into the living room at 3 a.m. instead of the bathroom—the most frequent destination for seniors at that hour—a pre-recorded voice coming from a home speaker could let them know where they are. Or, pre-emptively, the hallway and bathroom lights could turn on to guide them (and a light atop a walker could switch on as a reminder for those who use a mobility tool).
Open/closed sensors on the exterior doors of the smart home can detect whether they go outside, which is a risk for somebody suffering from dementia, and send a text or phone alert to a relative that their loved one might be wandering.
Meanwhile, door open/closed sensors on the fridge could track whether they’re preparing breakfast in the morning, and a thermal camera focused on the stove could tell whether they’re cooking something nutritious—and remind them to turn off the burner when finished. Passive sensing is one of the keys to success. It means people won’t need to wear devices and cameras won’t capture or share images. The sensors gather data that can generate a safety alert or build a profile to help family members and healthcare professionals assess a senior’s behaviour and determine when and how to intervene.
The technology could also be used in long-term care facilities to help overnight staff keep residents safe. If somebody gets out of bed and doesn’t return within a certain amount of time, a notification could prompt staff to check in.