As the old saying goes, time and tide wait for no man — and we are all living proof. By the year 2030, over 20 percent of Americans will be seniors. While many of us will want to stay home to keep our independence, it's not always that easy. But at Northeastern University, researchers are working on a solution.
On the fourth floor of Richards Hall on Northeastern University’s campus in Boston is a fully furnished 600-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment. It looks a little out place in a building made up of classrooms and labs. But Christine Gordon, program manager of the Consortium of Technology for Proactive Care, says this is a working lab, too.
“Welcome to NUHome,” she said. “It is representative, or illustrative, of what an older independent living adults might be living in. The big picture is to allow people to age in place, or to rehabilitate in place, because we know that there are health outcomes for individuals who are in the home are generally better than those that are institutionalized.”
NUHome is a “smart home,” fully equipped with devices, cameras and sensors designed to monitor a resident’s movements and give reminders on when to take your meds and coach you through workouts. It can even track how often you’re brushing and flossing.
While some of these gadgets may seem a little-over-top, the U.S. is facing a caregiving crisis. The population of seniors will double over the next 30 years, along with a sharp decline in family caregivers. This will open up the demand for virtual caregiving — a burgeoning market that’s expected to reach $30 billion by 2020. While a lot of the sensors and smart technology implemented in NUHome already exists, the NUHome team is developing its own devices, like a smart cane that tracks a user’s gait and balance over time.
“Just by using something as simple as a cane, we're able to learn a lot about not just their habits and where they might be in the home but also the status of their health,” Gordon said.
The NUHome team is also working on ways to send information from devices like this to a family member or alert your physician’s office when necessary. Holly Jimison, co-creator of NUHome, envisions doctors will prescribe patients with devices and plans tailored to their individual needs and conditions.
“In the same way they would go get a prescription filled at the drugstore, these kits could be available with the right modules inside, all the sensors required," Jimison said.
But these devices are not cheap. Some would even argue they’re a luxury. Even so, Laurie Orlov, founder of Aging In Place Technology Watch, says insurers might be willing to foot the bill.
“It’s always feasible to have something medically reimbursed if it provides value that reduces the likelihood of a person being readmitted to the hospital,” she said.
This prediction isn't far-fetched as more states provide Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement for telemedicine services— interactions with a health care provider over video conferencing. Massachusetts is one of the only states that does not have a telehealth parity law in place, though private insurers are mandated to offer some reimbursement.
But before any of these technologies can even get to that point, Laurie Orlov says they need to be commercialized.
“I believe that research projects that create prototypes that are useful for an older adult market need to simultaneously find partners who will bring that into commercial reality so that people can benefit from in the near term versus the long term,” Orlov said.
For Holly Jimison, the ultimate goal is creating a software that integrates all these technologies and using that information to better inform physicians and caretakers.
“I think much of it is here now but it's not coordinated,” she said. “You know, people will have an app for this and app for that, and nothing is pulled together and integrated into your daily lives.”
If integrating these sensors and devices means living independently longer, aging in place just might become a little easier.