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This Fort Worth 'Smart' Apartment Helps Seniors Live Independently

Instead of having to go to the doctors for a checkup, how about getting a physical every day, without having to do anything at all? Starting this fall, a senior citizen will move in to a live-in laboratory in Fort Worth.

And from the moment they step foot onto the ceramic tiles, they’ll be monitored -- helping researchers and nurses at UT-Arlington determine the best ways to prevent falls, monitor bedsores, even changes in pulse.

At this apartment, a fingerprint and a push get you through the door.

Manfred Huber is our guide through this cozy, one-bedroom at Lakewood Village Senior Living Community. Huber is an associate professor in UT-Arlington's Department of Computer Science and Engineering. He points out the electric door handle makes keeping track of keys unnecessary.

Even better, the handle requires no turning, which is easier for people with arthritis to use.

The door, like the rest of the apartment, is high tech for a reason. Every detail has been designed to make it easier for older adults to live independently longer.

A Floor To Predict Falls

The entire floor here is actually a set of sensors that give pressure readings 50 times a second. Of course, you can calculate weight – which is why there’s no scale in this apartment – but also tiny fluctuations that that could help doctors check in on patients or concerned kids check in on their parents.

“While you’re standing, every muscle adjustment in your ankle, every little twitch will actually register in those sensors,” Huber says. “We can measure how much your sway is. How fast your sway is. How many corrective movements you make.”

Monitoring weight is also important for people who have conditions such as congestive heart failure.

If a computer detects major weight fluctuations, say from the morning to the night, it could automatically send a message to the doctor and suggest a checkup.

Clues to whether someone’s heart is working or whether he’s likely to fall might be found in the feet, clues to whether someone’s liver is working could be found in the face.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Manfred Huber, assistant professor at UTA, looks into the bathroom mirror that’s been outfitted with a camera and face recognition technology.

Mirror Mirror, How’s My Health? 

Huber is looking straight into the bathroom mirror. Using face recognition software, the camera hidden behind the glass focuses in on the area right below his eyes. You can’t tell, but the lens is analyzing the color information – the red hemoglobin color of his blood and the color of his skin.

“There’s a number of diseases that actually change your skin colors,” Huber says. For example Hepatitis makes your skin appear more yellow. “If we can model this we can detect things like changes in your blood color, which might be some of these conditions.”

The other information researchers can determine from skin color is heart rate.

“While people can’t see the color change in your face due to pulse,” Huber says, “Computers can.”

A Mattress That Monitors You While You Sleep

Another health tracking technology is in the bedroom, below a floral comforter, there’s a pressure sensing mat. It tracks how bodies are turning, distribution of weight, even how someone is breathing.

Although this mat, priced at more than $3,500, is useful in monitioring the slightest movements, Huber says for 95 percent of the population, it’s overkill.

“Part of the research is finding out what is actually useful,” Huber says. “So we need to gather more data than you [might] need.”

All the data that’s collected travels to a control room next door to the apartment.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
More than a thousand pressure points indicate how weight is distributed on the mattress.

Mission Control

Just down the hall from the apartment at Lakewood Village Senior Living Community is a control room to monitor data collection. Two computers are flashing with numbers. Analyzing changes in balance and weight, breathing and pulse.

“That is information that could go to your doctor’s office, information that could go to their children,” Huber says.

If a 24/7 physical sounds creepy, keep in mind the person living there will have control over what happens with the information.

Beyond privacy concerns, Laurie Orlov worries that tracking isn’t enough to keep seniors healthy. Orlov is founder of the market research firm Aging in Place Technology Watch.

“Unless you can provide [seniors] with some kind of engagement technology in conjunction with monitoring them,” she says, “Then what you’re rely doing is watching them in a way that may benefit you the watcher, but doesn’t necessarily benefit the older person directly.”

Which is why Orlov likes the idea of using technology to help seniors chat and spend time with friends and family.

Most importantly, Orlov says the team at UT Arlington should be thinking about how to commercialize the technologies that do work, so that the products are tested and improved on outside of this apartment laboratory.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Next door to the apartment at Lakewood Village Senior Living Community is a control room to monitor data collection.

The federal Health Resources and Services Administration provided more than $600,000 in funding for the five-year project, which has been a collaborative effortinvolving premier faculty from the UT Arlington College of Nursing and Health Innovation and the College of Engineering.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.