Technology Will Give Us More Autonomy
Where do you want to live as you get older? The vast majority of people over age 65 agree: They want to stay in their current homes. Some like the independence of being in their own place. For others, the proximity of family and friends keeps them anchored. And sometimes the affordability factor is the attraction.
Whatever the reasons, the desire to “age in place” is a common thread, but it’s also fraught with risks when health or mobility problems arise.
“People want to stay in their homes,” says Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and innovation, “but how do we provide the assistance they need?”
According to UMass Lowell faculty, here are some of the key ways:
1) COLLECT SENSITIVE HEALTH DATA.
With the proliferation of smartphones, wearable technologies and “intelligent personal assistants” like Amazon’s Alexa, it’s becoming easier and more affordable for older Americans to live at home. In fact, aging-in-place technology is now a $30 billion industry—and growing. For people living on their own, these gadgets and sensors generate data that allow family members, caregivers or health care professionals to respond to their needs quickly.
“For example,” says Assoc. Prof. Yan Luo of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, “the data streams can help predict the risk of accidental falls or tell people if someone has been taking their medications on time.”
Luo’s “Flexware” project, which received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, supports computer-assisted independent living for aging individuals by developing ways to transport and store large quantities of sensitive data through a secure system.
Luo is also leading a project called STREAMS (Secure Transport and Research Architecture for Monitoring Stroke Recovery) to securely transmit data from a stroke patient’s home monitoring devices.
Electrical and computer engineering Prof. Vinod Vokkarane, meanwhile, received a $1 million NSF grant to build a “high-performance cyberinfrastructure” to transfer large quantities of data from biomedical sensors, which measure things like a person’s blood pressure or sweat to monitor health.
All this new health data needs to be securely transmitted, of course, which is where the UMass Center for Digital Health comes in. Launched by Assoc. Prof. of Computer Science Yu Cao in 2016 with a grant from the UMass President Science & Technology Initiatives Fund, the center researches digital health innovations for, among other areas, aging populations.
2) IMPROVE BIOMECHANICS.
Researchers are also focusing on biomechanics, studying how bone and muscle systems work under different conditions, especially as we age. The UMass Movement Research Center, which was launched this year, has pulled together a research team of scientists, chemists, biologists, clinicians, physical therapists and public health experts from across UMass Lowell, UMass Amherst and UMass Medical School.
Led by Assoc. Prof. of Chemistry Matthew Gage, the UMOVE team is focused on improving the health of the older population, but much of its work could impact all ages.
“The potential of this combined expertise,” Gage says, “could lead to new discoveries in biomechanics, advances in rehabilitation medicine and designs of robotic devices.”