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Giving meaning to quality of life through technology

October 1, 2007
by KATHERINE D. SEELMAN, PHD, DIANE M. COLLINS, PHD, OTR/L, ASHOK J. BHARUCHA, MD, and JIM OSBORN
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Cutting-edge research on aging-in-place technologies at Carnegie Mellon University/University of Pittsburgh

How can technology improve quality of life for older adults and people with disabilities? Is such technology achievable? Can it be affordable?

Research demonstrates that most people simply want to live and work independently in the community as long as possible. The setting may be one's personal home, a neighborhood or, finally, a nearby institution. Technology can be used in all these situations to assist with daily task completion so that a person can maintain the lifestyle of his or her choosing. Sensor-rich, intelligent technology, whether stand-alone devices or integrated systems, can provide functional and cognitive support while monitoring the health status of those individuals who are aging in place or those with unstable medical conditions who often transition abruptly among various care settings.

The Carnegie Mellon University/University of Pittsburgh Quality of Life Technology (QoLT) Center (http://www.qolt.org), through research and development (R&D), is crafting intelligent devices and systems in response to the needs of older adults and people with disabilities—regardless of age, use of informal and formal caregivers, or type of institution. The QoLT Center, established in 2006 by a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center grant, aims to realize a modern vision of quality of life. The QoLT vision is being actualized through transformative R&D by leading technologists, with practical involvement by the industry, end users, providers, clinicians, and other stakeholders.

Beyond technology R&D, the QoLT Center has taken a proactive stance toward understanding the myriad demographic, market, regulatory, and health system challenges involved. By carefully integrating technology and social research, the Center aims to enhance theoretical and practical knowledge about individual acceptance and societal adoption of the contexts in which the technologies are applied. Thus, researchers ask questions such as: What technology is needed, and what are the barriers to individual acceptance? Responses will be varied and may include such nontechnical issues as complexity, cost, aesthetics, and infringement on privacy/dignity. Other questions involve product market potential and regulatory requirements. Using survey research, focus groups, and other methodologies, QoLT researchers are collecting, analyzing, and sharing this information with technology and support provider partners.
Advancing technolgies, including the use of robotics, help seniors to perform their daily tasks

Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University


Advancing technolgies, including the use of robotics, help seniors to perform their daily tasks





Advancing technolgies, including the use of robotics, help seniors to perform their daily tasks

Courtesy of University of Pittsburgh/VA Human Engineering Research Laboratories


Advancing technolgies, including the use of robotics, help seniors to perform their daily tasks


Intelligent systems are the cornerstone of QoLT research. Using sensors and software, future devices will be able to anticipate a person's intent, understand his or her capabilities of achieving that intent, and provide assistance as needed and desired. The QoLT Center's R&D strategy defines four families of engineered systems that embody the Center's vision and research foci: (1) Virtual Coach, (2) Active Home, (3) Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance, and (4) Safe Driving. Prototypes of each family will be integrated and tested in real-world settings such as a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) and a 10-acre neighborhood, a natural community that features homes, stores, a community center, and civic infrastructure to support older adults, people with disabilities, and others who simply seek better quality of life.

An example of quality-of-life technology is CareMedia, an automated video and sensor analysis system for geriatric care that was developed by computer scientists at Car-negie Mellon University under the auspices of National Science Foundation funding. CareMedia uses computer analysis of video and other data to capture continuously, and in real-time, a record of activities, behaviors, and social interactions of extended-care facility residents. The non-private spaces of dementia units are instrumented with ceiling-mounted video cameras that record continuously for extended periods. Even as a prototype, CareMedia has helped staff identify how and when residents with Alzheimer's disease have tried to elope from a locked dementia unit and has documented an increased frequency of aggressive behaviors by these residents toward the later part of the day. Such information permits staff to consider individually tailored pharmacological, behavioral, environmental, or staffing adjustments to ensure a safe living (and working) environment.

Likewise, CareMedia has also demonstrated, quite vividly, the discrepancies between reports of aggressive behaviors as documented in the federally mandated Minimum Data Set and data captured by the continuous monitoring approach of CareMedia. Such a system could conceivably assist long-term care facilities in compliance with state and federal regulations and simultaneously reduce the human effort of preparing such reports.

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