Getting patients home is the primary goal of any health facility, according to Dr. Frank Knoefel, but this isn’t always possible.

The medical director, geriatric rehabilitation services at Sisters of Charity of Ottawa Health Service

says families are not always able to care for elderly relatives, leaving retirement and nursing homes as the other options. If Knoefel has his way, however, IT will pave the way for a more independent lifestyle.

Public and private sector groups in Ottawa are pooling their resources as part of the Technology-assisted, friendly environment for the third age (TAFETA) project. The goal is to build wired apartments where seniors and their activities can be monitored. The project was launched Tuesday in part thanks to an $80,000 grant from The Change Foundation. Carleton University Faculty of Engineering and Design, University of Ottawa Institute on Health of the Elderly, Central Park Lodges and March Networks Corp. are also involved.

Knoefel says the guiding philosophy behind the research and design avoids the design-a-product-find-a-problem theory.

“”Rather than looking at one clinical problem and coming up with a solution, we thought, let’s take the issue of staying at home. And can’t we make a (standard) apartment which then you can graft modules that would be patient specific?”” Knoefel says.

Modules could include motion sensors in front of stoves (burners turn off after a predetermined length of inactivity), faucets that turn off after two minutes, a sensor under the bathroom floor to weigh a user, to name a few. Knoefel says he envisions all this health and environmental data being collected and stored on a server. The information would then be analyzed and action could be taken if needed. He says, for example, a scale could help detect problems early.

“”If there was a way of capturing early on that the patient is gaining weight for instance, we would be able to prevent hospitalization,”” he says. “”What happens is they gradually gain weight until they get to a critical mass, the heart can’t do it anymore, bang, they end up in emergency and cost a couple of thousand just to assess.””

Bob Webster, vice-president and general manager healthcare applications for March Networks, says the health-care system and Canadians in general are open to such changes. His company, for example, makes a device to monitor and transmit various health statistics remotely and provide video consultation.

“”We need to be using information technology, but deploying it with a user interface that makes it available to more people. So for instance, in the case of our telehealth product, it simply uses the end users television set,”” Webster says.

Knoefel agrees. The designers must remember the apartments are being designed for people with little or no technology experience.

“”That’s one of the big challenges: How do we get our frail, elderly people with cognitive impairment to adapt to really high-tech stuff in their apartment? How can you give feedback on taking medication, for instance, because that’s one of the big issues with the elderly,”” Knoefel says. “”Everything has to be elder-friendly.””

Knoefel and his partners can count on a lot users in the coming years. According to Statistics Canada 21 per cent (about 8 million) of Canada’s population fall into the 50-plus age group. By 2011 that number will rise to almost 12 million.


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