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Mizzou professor teaches senators about technology to help seniors stay at home

Technology, monitored by a nurse, may help the elderly stay in home settings longer.
Technology, monitored by a nurse, may help the elderly stay in home settings longer.

Technology is extending the amount of time aging Americans can live in the familiar surroundings of their own home, rather than be placed in a care facility. Marjorie Skubic, director of the University of Missouri’s Center for Eldercare and Rehabilitation Technology, told members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging Wednesday, about an automated in-home health monitoring system that may allow seniors to stay in their own homes for nearly two years longer than they might otherwise be able to.

Skubic oversees TigerPlace, the university’s specially designed independent, senior housing facility in Columbia. The university started testing technology at the 54-unit complex in 2005.

She told senators about Eva, a TigerPlace resident with history of congestive heart failure and a “cycle of re-hospitalization as her condition worsened, got better and then worsened again.”

Technology, monitored by a nurse, may help the elderly stay in home settings longer.
Credit NIH website
Technology, monitored by a nurse, may help the elderly stay in home settings longer.

Eva volunteered for the university’s sensor study.Skubictold the senators that the motion, bed and chair sensors installed in her apartment detected changes in Eva’s patterns. These alerted others to a worsening of her health. Without immediate action, Eva would have been readmitted to the hospital.Skubicsaid the nurse monitoring Eva said what was needed was a change in medication, not re-hospitalization.

Eva’s doctor resisted this request because she didn't meet his standard protocol. But Skubic said he was persuaded “and she never went back to the hospital for heart failure again … The sensors in Eva’s apartment picked up subtle changes before Eva or her doctor noticed it,” said Skubic.

Since then, the university has developed an automated system that sends alerts to the nursing staff. These help those making clinical decisions. The system now includes a bed sensor that captures pulse, respiration, restlessness, falls and a walking-gate analysis system. Skubic told senators that the walking-gate analysis system can indicate possible early dementia by detecting changes in walking speed and length of stride.

Sensors can be placed discretely throughout a home or apartment and do not need to be worn by a person. Skubic said the system does not use surveillance cameras, to respect residents’ privacy, but it does use what she called “depth images” that produce shadowy silhouettes.

“The sensor system observes the seniors, learns their typical patterns and sends alerts to clinical staff when there are signs of health problems,” said Skubic. She said the system has detected early sighs of pneumonia, urinary tract infections, pain, delirium and hypoglycemia.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the committee’s ranking member, invited Skubic to update senators on the technology at TigerPlace. McCaskill says she’d like to see such technology “monetized” so that it can be made commercially available to seniors across the country. "This is a really important for our debt and deficit because if we can figure this out, the cost savings are dramatic to the long-term problems with the demographic bubble that is represented with the (baby boomer) generation," McCaskill said.

Testimony in Wednesday’s hearing updated committee members on the latest technology available to help the elderly live on their own longer, assist family members and other caregivers in caring for aging loved ones, and help families reduce the expense of placing relatives in nursing homes and other care facilities.

TigerPlace was built by Americare, a private corporation that operates the housing, housekeeping and dinning, according to Skubic. Clinical operations are handled through the nursing school

Copyright 2015 St. Louis Public Radio

Howard covers news from Washington, D.C., of importance to the St. Louis region. His beat includes following the legislative activities of area lawmakers on Capitol Hill as well as developments from The White House, Supreme Court and numerous federal agencies and departments. Prior to joining St. Louis Public Radio, he was a longtime newscaster and producer at NPR in Washington. Howard also has deep roots in the Midwest. Earlier in his career, he was statehouse bureau chief for Illinois Public Radio, where he directed news coverage of state government and politics for a 13-station network.