House Keeps Tabs on Elderly
85, Matilda is frail and forgetful. Like a growing number
of Floridians, she has reached the stage when living on her
own is becoming difficult. But she will avoid an assisted
living facility or nursing home for now.
At least she would if she were real.
of Florida engineering Professor Sumi Helal stands next
to Matilda, a mannequin representing the elderly occupant
of a UF-developed “smart house” designed to
assist people as they age.
is actually a life-size mannequin whose wig and school-marm
spectacles symbolize her identity as an elderly person, and
her home is an experimental 500-square-foot “smart house”
at the University of Florida. The house melds the latest computer
and sensor technology to provide automatically the assistance
at home that many people need as they age.
Consisting of a fully furnished living room, kitchen, bedroom
and bathroom, the house takes up the better part of a fourth-floor
computer laboratory in UF’s computer science engineering
building. Built into this cozy but complete living space is
a mind-bending array of experimental assistive-living devices,
ranging from a microwave that recognizes entrees and automatically
determines how long to cook them to sensors that track an
elderly person’s whereabouts in the home. These devices
are linked by a computer network and keep tabs on each other
and, most important, the resident.
“What this home demonstrates is the evolution from assistive
devices to assistive environments,” said Sumi Helal,
an associate professor of computer and information science
and engineering. Helal also is director of technology development
for the UF Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology
for Successful Aging.
Some other examples of how the smart house makes life easier
for aging occupants:
• If water leaks onto the floor, the house senses it
and alerts the resident by cell phone.
• If a visitor comes to the door, sensors pinpoint which
room the resident occupies, and a camera beams the visitor’s
picture to a TV screen there.
• If the resident wants to unlock the door, he or she
can tell the cell phone, which then transmits a code to open
the electronic latch.
The rehabilitation center, funded most recently with a $4.5
million grant from the National Institute for Disability,
Rehabilitation and Research, seeks to help people live alone
longer and lower the cost of their care. Although only 10
percent of people in their 60s require assistance in their
daily lives, half of men and women 80 or older need outside
help, said William Mann, director of the center, and professor
and chairman of the occupational therapy department in UF’s
College of Public Health and Health Professions.
With the oldest of 78 million baby boomers just about to reach
their 60s, that spells a huge wave of assistive care needs
— and ballooning costs — in the next two decades
and beyond, he said.
Mann, who has spent more than a decade studying how technology
can help alleviate disabilities associated with aging, said
his work revealed elderly people have a “tremendous
need” for assistive devices. His studies show that elderly
people who obtain and use the devices tend to decline more
slowly than those who remain unassisted and they also cost
the system less for care, he said.
In the future, caregivers could use the technology to monitor
the resident’s health remotely. If sensors don’t
pick up any movement, the caregivers could call the resident
or send someone out to check. The house could also “prompt”
patients with dementia, who frequently forget what they’re
“We are evolving from pulling a Lifeline-type device
to getting the entire environment to help you,” Helal
Sumi Helal, firstname.lastname@example.org
by Aaron Hoover