What is a Dementia-Friendly Smart Home?

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Age-tech aims to create a more independent future for people living with dementia.

You get out of bed in the morning, use the washroom and go downstairs for breakfast. Meanwhile, your blood pressure and heart rate were measured, sensors notified a care partner that you were a bit unsteady in your movements and you were reminded to turn off the water after a robot prompted you to make your tea.

Leading Innovation

Dr. Alex Mihailidis, AGE-WELL Scientific Director and CEO. Photo courtesy of AGE-WELL.

This is what Dr. Alex Mihailidis, CEO and Scientific Director at AGE-WELL, envisions future homes to be like for people living with dementia.

Mihailidis, who was recognized in September as one of the United Nations Healthy Aging 50 — 50 leaders working to transform the world to be a better place to grow older, is a seasoned professor at the University of Toronto and has worked in the field of dementia and technology for nearly 25 years.

He first began developing age-tech as prompting systems in the 2000s after a chance meeting with a man whose wife was living with young onset dementia. “He was telling me all the difficulties he had taking care of her, to give her reminders of things to do in the washroom and in the kitchen, et cetera,” says Mihailidis. “He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if a computer could do all this for us?’ And that idea stuck in my head.”

Researchers at the SAM3 “smart apartment” test heat-sensing technology that can show the complexity of meals. The AGE-WELL National Innovation Hub called SAM3 (Sensors and Analytics for Monitoring Mobility and Memory), launched in 2017 to address mobility and memory challenges faced by older adults. SAM3 is a partnership between AGE-WELL, Bruyère Research Institute and Carleton University. Courtesy: AGE-WELL.

Mihailidis and his team developed a computer that could prompt people with dementia to move more independently through their daily living activities. Stemming off that work, he built his research lab and helped build the thriving AGE-WELL network, Canada’s largest non-profit organization that aims to foster healthy aging through technology.

Together with trainees and other researchers, Mihailidis collaborates to create technologies that can be integrated to result in efficient smart homes with built-in artificial intelligence, sensors and robotics that increase the safety and security of people with dementia, while extending independence and enhancing opportunities for social connection.

These innovations can also provide significant peace of mind for care partners. By paving the way for innovation, Mihailidis and AGE-WELL are ensuring a dementia-friendly smart home is well on its way to becoming reality.

"We want to predict ... and catch something that may happen a month or two down the road, so we can put the right intervention in place."

– Dr. Alex Mihailidis

Developing foresight

Dr. Frank Knoefel (Bruyère Research Institute) and Haoyang Liu (then a Carleton University student) are part of an AGE-WELL-supported team working on sensor-based systems to assess sleep quality and monitor health during sleep. Courtesy: AGE-WELL.

For Mihailidis, the “holy grail” is to find a way for these technologies to predict changes in a person’s health, which will lead to prevention of disease or worsening of symptoms. For example, the flooring may sense a person going to the bathroom twice as many times which may indicate the presence of a urinary tract infection, but he says that’s not enough.

“We want to predict what does that mean and catch something that may happen a month or two down the road, so we can put the right intervention in place,” he says.

To this end, researchers are developing predictive algorithms using different types of artificial intelligence to help people with dementia, including those living alone, to remain safe and independent for as long as possible.

From the lab to your home

But moving these devices from the research lab into the real world isn’t so easy. More research is needed for new technologies to receive approval for home use.

Bruyère research coordinator Laura Ault demos a sensor that is part of a wandering detection and diversion system which uses motion, contact and bed sensors to detect a sleeper’s movements if they wander out of bed. Courtesy: AGE-WELL.

To help make an impact for people living with dementia sooner, the products could be released directly to consumers through retailers, says Mihailidis.

He also says that to make smart homes work better for people, these products need to be made to be integrated, not as separate entities. “You're buying five or six different products … and none of them talk to each other,” he says. “How do you have these systems coordinate with each other? How do you standardize these technologies?”

Just as the technology needs to be integrated, he says it’s important for researchers to work together. He hopes being a part of the Healthy Aging 50 can make this happen.

“Putting together this international group of experts across different disciplines is going to be critical to my work, and hopefully to their work as well, to continue to get these different perspectives of the way that technology can play a role in dementia and aging,” says Mihailidis.

"As the baby boomers continue to become the older adult population, they're more tech savvy, and they're going to have a greater expectation that technology's part of their daily lives."

– Dr. Alex Mihailidis

Ed the robot. Courtesy: AGE-WELL.

He stresses how important it is to make sure people are aware of these technologies and how they can help someone living with dementia. One way he does this is through the AGE-WELL network.

“There are really great documents that we've produced for the general population that talks about this area of technology and outlines some of the products that are out there and some of the new companies that we're supporting,” he says. The AGE-WELL network also provides opportunities for older adults to contribute to research and development of age-tech products.

Integrated research, along with spreading awareness about these technologies, will help to move these products from research labs into the real world, but he says above all, success will require true understanding of the needs of older people living with dementia and their care partners.

“As the baby boomers continue to become the older adult population, they're more tech savvy, and they're going to have a greater expectation that technology's part of their daily lives,” Mihailidis says. “We're not only building for the current day older person, but for the future.”


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