Rewriting Life

An Activity Tracker for Seniors

By tracking an older person’s movements at home, a new wearable device could help predict serious changes in health.

With people living longer, often alone, dangerous falls and general deterioration in health may go unnoticed.

The newest wearable device isn’t for fitness fanatics or life loggers. It’s designed for older people who want to stay in their homes. Later this year CarePredict, a startup based in Davie, Florida, will begin shipping its first batch of wearable tracking systems intended to help relatives and other caretakers monitor the activity of older adults for early signs of serious health concerns. The system involves sensors worn on the wrist and stuck to walls inside the home to track activities in different rooms and alert someone of any suspicious changes.

While the companies behind many smart watches, fitness trackers, and other wearable devices are clamoring for the attention of active, healthy customers (see “Smart Watches Get Simpler and More Stylish at CES” and “Fitness Trackers Still Need to Work Out Kinks”), some developers see potential in targeting the needs of people who have particular health concerns, including the health declines associated with aging. Products that help older customers maintain an independent lifestyle by connecting them with their adult children or other caregivers could tap into a huge market, says Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab. To that end, many groups are working on health-monitoring technologies such as motion-detecting cameras, in-floor pressure sensors, and smart watches.

The CarePredict system monitors movements and body orientation while keeping track of which room the user is in. “This isn’t a FitBit for granny,” says Satish Movva, the company’s CEO and founder, referring to the fitness-targeted device that tracks activity data. In addition to the wrist-worn activity tracker, the new system includes four peel-and-stick beacons that detect whether someone is in the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, or living room. The beacons send tracker data to a hub also installed in the home, which then uploads the data to the Internet for analysis and storage.

Adding the location context to the activity data is key, says Movva: “If someone is lying down in the bedroom, then they are probably sleeping. But if someone is lying down in the bathroom, then there is potentially an issue.” The wrist-worn sensor can detect arm movements, body posture, and walking speed.

After the system is set up in a home, it spends seven days learning the normal activity patterns of its user. If it detects changes in those daily patterns later, the system sends an alert by text message, e-mail, or push notification to a designated person. The hope is that small changes such as a slower walking pattern could be detected before a serious event like a fall occurs, says Movva. “If we start seeing anomalies from the baseline, then we can intervene.”

With any new technology developed for seniors, the challenge is getting them to use it, says Coughlin: “For older adults in general, the adoption rate of technologies that manage, monitor, and motivate is painfully slow.” Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not usability or expense that keeps adoption down. Rather, he says, “it’s what the technology says about ‘me’”—no one wants to see themselves as frail or disabled. Coughlin says older adults need incentives, especially with an element of social connection, to give up some privacy in exchange for the benefits of health tracking. “Many ideas hit the mark technologically but miss the key ingredients of fashion, fun, and friends,” he says.

CarePredict has tried to address the issue of fashion. Movva developed the system after noticing that the health of his parents could change drastically in between his weekly visits. He says that he could better address their health concerns if he were more promptly alerted to changes in their behavior. But his mother told him she wouldn’t wear a health-tracking device “unless it looks nice,” and the design drawings for one version of the wrist-worn device do look like a fashionable beaded bracelet. The company also plans to create a wearable that looks similar to a standard men’s watch. 

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