The fastest-growing population on Long Island and around the world is older adults. By 2035, those aged 65 and over are expected to comprise more than 20 percent of Long Island’s population — a demographic shift that will test our society’s capacity to provide critical and supportive care. As the model of elder care evolves, Stony Brook researchers are studying new “Internet-of-Things” (IoT) technologies — solutions such as smart lights and indoor climate controls that can transform our environments — to address the challenges of growing older and “aging in place.”
The goal of IoT is to create an environment of connected, smart devices that enable constant yet unobtrusive observation, data gathering, analysis and insight, and event extraction. To help further research in this important area, the National Science Foundation awarded a multidisciplinary Stony Brook team $1.7 million in federal funding to develop tools that will help Long Island’s older adults maintain their independence.
“This team effort is a perfect example of the broad-based multidisciplinary research that is thriving at Stony Brook,” said Robert Kukta, acting dean, College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS). “This collaboration between CEAS, School of Nursing, School of Social Welfare and the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University brings expertise and research from across our campus to address an important real-world challenge that exists not only on Long Island, but around the world.”
The research team is using the “Home of the Future Lab,” located in the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology (CEWIT). The lab, specially created to develop and test smart home technologies, is wired with a rich set of research equipment, including multiple wall-mounted Kinect boxes for motion capture and a full-size screen wall for interactive display. It’s configured as a functional and fully furnished, move-in ready 450-square-foot apartment that has a living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. The lab can accommodate residents who live and conduct their regular activities as if they were at home. Team leader Fan Ye, associate professor, Department of Electrical and Computing Engineering, and director of CEWIT’s Communications and Devices Division, has been developing sensing systems and conducting experiments using this lab.
“It’s an ideal research facility where older adults can stay and the sensing system can obtain representative, close-to-real-life data without actually deploying wiring in people’s homes,” he said.
Elinor Schoenfeld, associate vice chair for research, Department of Family, Population and Prevention Medicine, is leading comprehensive community engagement activities of the study, a distinctive aspect critical to the success of this project.
“Including our stakeholders in all phases of sensor development from design through implementation is vital for deployment success,” she said. “A great strength of this project is the inclusion of more than 30 community and provider stakeholders. Members from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Stony Brook have been instrumental in guiding our sensor choices and project focus to best support our aging population. We look forward to continued collaborations with all our stakeholders throughout this study.”
Patricia Bruckenthal, associate dean for research and innovation for the School of Nursing, said nursing science plays a prominent role in improving the health of our communities, exhibited by two concurrent trends in older adult care.
“On one hand, there is a shift from providing care in a hospital setting to the home,” she said. “The other trend is the strong desire of older adults to stay in their own homes as they get older, also referred to as ‘aging in place.’ Nurses have been delivering healthcare to people in their homes for as long as there have been nurses and will continue to do so.”
But this type of care presents challenges, as nurses are not continuously in a person’s home and a person’s health status changes over time. To this end, Bruckenthal said, the development and testing of high-tech, low-cost, nonwearable, continuous sensing devices by the team will enable novel forms of monitoring that can provide early intervention when appropriate for the physical, cognitive and social well-being of older adults in their living environments.
“This research is unique in convening researchers from tech fields with clinical practitioners in nursing and social work to effectively promote innovations that help people to age in place safely and independently,” said Jacqueline Mondros, dean of the School of Social Welfare. “We are harnessing technology to support older adults and their families that avoids isolation and risk and improves satisfaction and quality of life in the latter stages of life.”
Ye said the team has tested technology, including a depth-sensor radio that can measure subjects’ heart and respiration rates remotely without the need for wearables or touching the human body from a distance up to three or four meters.
“The prototype has shown to determine the relative location of the human body and chest, recognize the body pose, and extract the respiration and heart rate within 0.8 and 1.2 bpm errors at the 80th percentile, using both special hardware and sophisticated signal processing, machine-learning algorithms,” he said. “This validates the feasibility of our proposed approach.”
Ye said the challenge moving forward is to improve the accuracy, robustness and capability of the prototype so it can meet the needs of real-world deployment. Among the goals: making it smaller so it’s more suitable for home deployment; fine-tuning the measurements to make them more stable and robust against body motions; enabling the capability to track, identify and differentiate cohabiting subjects; and adding auxiliary sensors for other desired physical/vital data, such as body temperature.
Beyond the technology, team member Erez Zadok, professor, Department of Computer Science, is focusing on security and privacy, as well as machine learning. Zadok said that surveys consistently show that older adults want less monitoring when they are healthy, but more monitoring when their health declines.
“Our system has to adjust to people’s health status,” he said. “They also want a system that privately monitors them for emerging health issues, even if they don’t realize that their health is declining, and generates appropriate alerts. We need policies that can generate those alerts and also alert the right people when an older adult’s health is slowly declining over days, weeks or months.”
Ye said one thing is certain in regard to our aging population: “Family caregivers are becoming more aware of the limitations of existing methods, and how these constrain their lives and the lives of their loved ones. The innovations we’re working on will have a profound influence on our quality of life as we age as a society and is a testament of the value of research for helping humanity.”
— Robert Emproto