Canada and Europe fund intelligent senior homes

November 08, 2012

Technology may soon be helping seniors to live longer, healthier lives. A trio of researchers, including Simon Fraser University's Andrew Sixsmith, is working to develop intelligent, interactive sensors to be embedded in seniors' homes and used to support independent living.

The sensors will do everything from encouraging seniors to engage in brain stimulating puzzles, to reminding them to take medication, wash their hands, turn off the stove, exercise and eat.

Sixsmith, SFU's Gerontology Research Centre director, Alex Mihailidis from the University of Toronto and Arlene Astell, University of St. Andrews/Louise Nygard Karolinska Institutet in Sweden are receiving $730,000 through a joint federal and European health research-funding program to develop ambient assistive living technologies.

Their project -- Ambient Assistive Living Technologies for Wellness, Engagement and Long Living -- is one of six international projects receiving $5 million to fund research collectively that helps keep seniors healthy and living independently.

The federal government has thrown $1 million into the joint federal/European funding pot under a new initiative called the European Research Area on Ageing (ERA-AGE), Europe's first joint research program on aging. The Canadian contribution comes through the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, a federal health-research funding body.

The project undertaken by Sixsmith and his research partners targets seniors over the age of 65 with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). They represent 20 per cent of the over-65 population in Canada currently and that percentage is expected to grow with more people living to the age of 100 and older.

MCI means at least one aspect of a person's cognitive function, such as memory, is impaired but not enough to significantly disrupt daily functioning. However, untreated, it is believed to lead to the development of dementia, a debilitating brain disease that affects five per cent of people over the age of 65.

"Dementia isn't just hastened by brain changes," says Sixsmith. "It's brought on by increasingly damaging environmental challenges, like forgetting to eat, that deepen people's mental fragility to the point where they wind up in assisted living or long term care."

Economically, the research trio's project targets a vast untapped market for ambient assistive living technologies, turning frail seniors' homes into intelligent environments that will help them to live independently as long as possible.

They also create new industries, save governments billions of dollars and improve seniors' and their families' quality of life.
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Backgrounder: Economic benefits of ambient assistive living technology

"The European Union's investment of billions of dollars in ambient assistive living technologies should help to save health care systems millions," says Andrew Sixsmith.

The SFU Gerontology Research Centre's director points to a United Kingdom (UK) return-on-investment study that helped inspire their work.

The UK study looked at the health and financial impact of putting ambient assistive living technologies in the homes of 6,000 people over the age of 65 with significant health care and social service needs.

The project, called the Whole System Demonstrator, showed a significant reduction in mortality rates, along with reductions in emergency admissions (20 per cent), emergency room visits (15 per cent) and health-care related costs (eight per cent).

Simon Fraser University

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