Technology geared to making life easier for elderly, disabled and caregivers
November 16, 2014 12:00 AM
University of Pittsburgh graduate student Hervens Jeannis talks about the "Strong Arm", seen in foreground, a prototype that is in design at the university's Human Rehabilitation Engineering Laboratories in Bakery Square. The "Strong Arm" is designed to help people who use wheelchairs to move to and from their chairs with more ease. It is still a few years away from commercial release.
University of Pittsburgh researcher Hershal Mahajan points to and discusses parts of the smart kitchen that is in development at Pitt's Human Rehabilitation Engineering Laboratories at Bakery Square. The plan, Mr. Mahajan says, is to create a virtual assistant that automates many simple tasks, such as monitoring expiration dates, and guides users through, among other tasks, kitchen to afford more autonomy to the elderly and people with disabilities.
By Wesley Yiin / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
With a looming shortage of caregivers in the future to help with the growing population of older Americans -- especially in Pennsylvania -- the technology industry is stepping up to help both groups.
Right now, 14 percent of Americans are over the age of 65. By the year 2030, one in five Americans are expected to fall into that category.
This is an alarming prediction, but here’s something just as concerning: That same year, due to the aging of the baby boomer generation, one in every two Americans will be an “informal caregiver” for elderly loved ones.
For a while now, there has been research focusing on aiding the elderly. But at least in some scientific circles, researchers and engineers have targeted caregivers as well.
“Often it’s the caregivers that are also burning out, so things that can help them are also of importance,” said Dan Sieworek, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the Quality of Life Technology Center — a joint research center between CMU and the University of Pittsburgh.
The Quality of Life Center and affiliated research institutions in the area have recognized that it is paramount to jointly help those who need care and those who give it. Most relevant research areas and topics target either the elderly and disabled or their caretakers, but they take care not to neglect the existence of the other group.
Take, for instance, the Cueing Kitchen. A project of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, which receives funding from the Quality of Life Center, the kitchen is meant primarily for individuals who have memory loss due to brain injury or diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The demo kitchen constructed on site at HERL at Bakery Square in Larimer looks like any other kitchen, equipped with cabinets, a sink, a refrigerator, a dishwasher. But at the click of a few buttons on a nearby computer screen, the kitchen launches into guiding the user through a procedure, such as organizing your groceries or following a recipe.
If you need to find the spice cabinet, the handle lights up and the translucent glass becomes transparent. If you need to fill up a measuring cup with water, put it in the sink, and the faucet will run for a preset amount of time, shutting off once the cup is full.
The kitchen can do more than merely directing users in the right direction. If a user manually turns on the stove, but forgets to turn it off, after a certain period of time, the kitchen will automatically shut it off. Because the user can use a bar code scanner to input his or her groceries, the kitchen will tell the users when certain products have spoiled or expired.
The safety and efficiency of users with memory impairments are the top concerns of the Cueing Kitchen researchers, led by University of Pittsburgh post-doctoral researcher Harshal Mahajan and Ph.D. student Jing Wang. But some features are designed with caretakers in mind. For example, the kitchen has an application in which caretakers can input recipes that the system can later guide users through.
In addition, the researchers are running a parallel project: a robotic arm that can aid users who use wheelchairs because of spinal cord injuries by reaching objects in higher cabinets or difficult-to-reach surfaces. The arm can also be used in conjunction with the Cueing Kitchen for patients who are even more dependent and without the mental capacity to follow any sort of directions.
While this “virtual assistant” seems to help increase the autonomy of patients, the truth is that the $40,000 arm is rather pricey compared to the the Cueing Kitchen sensors and tablet computer, which Mr. Mahajan anticipated will sell for approximately $1,500. (Mr. Mahajan pointed out, however, that one night in the intensive care unit could cost up to $80,000. In such cases, having a preventive helper can actually save money.)
While the researchers anticipate that the arm, once completed and on the market, will have some private buyers, they plan to direct their attention with the product mostly to assisted living and nursing homes, where caregivers are abundant.
The kitchen and its related softwares and products should be ready to install as a test run elsewhere by the end of the year, Mr. Mahajan said.
Another project, the StrongArm, led by University of Pittsburgh Ph.D. student Hervens Jeannis, is an apparatus that can help caregivers lift their patients out of wheelchairs and transfer them to a seat or bed. Traditionally, caregivers have had to struggle against the weight of their loved ones while helping them move, and this has often led to injury.
The StrongArm, at the touch of a button, lifts the patient out of his seat safely and with stability. It can be used in tight spaces and adjusted for the maximum comfort of both the patient who uses a wheelchair and his or her lifter. The apparatus is being tested for safety right now, but by the time the StrongArm is ready to buy (in a couple of years, by Mr. Jeannis’s estimation), the machine will be able to be calibrated to its respective users and equipped with a number of risk-averting measures.
While Mr. Jeannis said that researchers in the field are thinking about developing technologies to help with a patient’s independent mobility -- that is, allowing him to move himself out of his wheelchair — the important thing is to first help caregivers.
“We’re trying to cater to the majority,” Mr. Jeannis said. “We don’t want them both [the caregiver and the patient] to end up in the hospital.”
The Quality of Life Center, HERL and other similar research sites have a number of other notable projects going on to assist the elderly, the disabled and their caretakers, but Mr. Sieworek — who recently struggled to teach his mother how to take her own blood sugar — summed up the goals of the experiments and engineering as such: As our country’s population ages, any help at all is appreciated.
“We could all use a little assistance,” he said.
Wesley Yiin, a junior at Yale, was a summer intern for the Post-Gazette.
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