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Independence

Google Home device pictured alongside with a smartphone displaying the Google Home app
Eventually, technology embedded in rugs, walls, appliances and furniture will predict necessary maintenance and sense health risks.

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.”

Illustration of a

3) BUILD HOMES OF THE FUTURE.

Sensors and monitoring technologies will be key to helping people stay in their homes, says mechanical engineering Prof. Robert Parkin.

“The big thing is communication,” he says. “It’s important that somebody who lives alone has a system that can monitor them so if you don’t hear from them for eight hours, you know what’s going on.”

Such systems will be commonplace in 10 or 20 years, says Liu. “Your house will be smarter than you are,” he says, explaining that technology embedded in rugs, walls, appliances and furniture will predict necessary maintenance and sense health risks.

“Your refrigerator will know what you need based on your patterns,” he says, “and will send an order to Market Basket, where it will be picked up by your home robot, which was driven in your autonomous automobile.”

Indeed, self-driving cars are inching closer to reality, which holds out the promise of improved mobility and transportation for people who may no longer be willing or able to drive.

“They’ll pick you up at the airport, drive you to the doctor, read road conditions and talk to each other about traffic,” says Liu.


4) REFINE ROBO-COMPANIONS.

At UMass Lowell’s New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation Center, Prof. Holly Yanco and her team help develop robots and wearable assistive devices that could help older people remain in their homes.

Yanco is testing and modeling this type of technology in collaboration with Assoc. Prof. Haim Levkowitz (computer science), Asst. Profs. Pei-Chun Kao and Yi-Ning Wu (both physical therapy) and Prof. Bryan Buchholz (public health).

According to Chen, this type of interdisciplinary approach is key to making sure seniors get the most out of their assistive technology.

“If you have an elderly person who’s not an expert in robots or technology,” Chen says, “it’s important to make it a comfortable and effective interaction—and not just an expensive thing that sits in the corner.”