Innovating Health Care

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AGE-WELL supports aging Canadians through technology

Dr. Goldie Nejat, AGE-WELL investigator and roboticist, at the University of Toronto with Casper the social robot. Photo courtesy of AGE-WELL.

Dr. Goldie Nejat, AGE-WELL investigator and roboticist, at the University of Toronto with Casper the social robot. Photo courtesy of AGE-WELL.

It wasn’t too long ago that fax machines and dial-up internet were seen as the pinnacle of technology. Back then, the concept of robots and “smart wheelchairs” would have sounded like little more than science fiction.

But now, Bridgette Murphy says, “here we are — it’s happening.”

Murphy is the managing director and COO of AGE-WELL, Canada’s technology and aging network. Since launching in 2015, the network has created technologies, policies and practices to assist older adults and their caregivers — and those technologies include smart wheelchairs and, yes, even robots.

AGE-WELL’s administrative centre is based in Toronto, but it has partners and researchers across the entire country. AGE-WELL is federally funded by the Networks of Centres of Excellence program, a federal government initiative that funds large-scale research networks. As technology and innovation has snowballed over the past few decades, AGE-WELL believes it can be utilized to enrich the lives, health, safety and independence of aging Canadians.

“We’re really looking at how technology can move the dial in many areas including cognitive health, dementia and independence,” says Murphy. “I’ve seen technology have such a dramatic effect on a person’s quality of life that it brought them to tears.”

Murphy worked in research within the rehabilitation sector before teaming up with long-time colleague and scientific director of AGE-WELL, Alex Mihailidis. She explains that, as a senior scientist in this sector, Mihailidis saw the need for a more collaborative, multi-sectoral approach to developing technologies to support the aging population.

“It was a fragmented research community,” Murphy says. “There were researchers working all across the country on the same things, but not necessarily together. This gap was really the impetus for us to connect everyone.”

And it wasn’t just researchers that AGE-WELL wanted at the table. In addition to its more than 250 funded and affiliated researchers from 42 Canadian universities and research centres, it has also partnered with caregivers, aging Canadians, and nearly 400 industry, government and non-profit partners.

“We knew that we couldn’t just do research for research’s sake,” says Murphy. “If you’re going to develop a technology for someone with dementia, someone with dementia needs to be a part of that process.”

Over the past five years, AGE-WELL has worked to bridge that gap through collaborations, research projects, training programs and more. The network connects Canadians living with dementia and other age-related conditions or challenges with researchers, policy-makers with innovators, and engineers with entrepreneurs. 

Through its combined knowledge base, AGE-WELL develops and aims to accelerate the delivery of technologies designed to assist the aging population. By funding research projects and opening up its network to innovators, AGE-WELL has helped to produce multiple start-up organizations with products for this demographic.

In the network’s first year of operation, it funded an idea for a smart wheelchair that uses a blind-spot sensor detection system to help prevent collisions and ensure safety. The project became a start-up called Braze Mobility, and the technology has now been commercialized.

AGE-WELL also funded a few robotics programs, including social robots that prompt people living with dementia to complete tasks like brushing their teeth or getting dressed. In the future, robots will able to make virtual medical visits possible so aging adults can stay at home for longer.

“Cognitive health and dementia have always been priorities for us,” says Murphy. “And that has really been validated by what we’ve heard from older adults and caregivers across the country. By hearing their stories, we know that technology can help meet the needs of Canadians and improve their lives.” [ ]