An increasing number of families know the stress of trying to deal with an elderly parent or spouse who is losing his or her ability to live independently. How can we maintain dignity for those who are having trouble completing daily tasks? How do we keep our elders safe, and who takes care of them?

A WSU research team, led by Diane Cook, Huie-Rogers Chair Professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe, professor in the Department of Psychology, will be studying approximately 10-20 residents in Horizon House, a Seattle-based continuing care retirement community, for three years as part of a research pilot project to develop better aging-in-place technologies. Supported by the Washington State Life Sciences Discovery Fund as well as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, the project is one of the largest studies conducted on the use of such technologies.

As the U.S. population becomes older, using technology to address the challenges of aging is of increasing interest. Allowing the elderly to stay in their homes not only keeps them happier, but it also saves money. Just keeping someone in their home for an additional few months can save tremendously on assisted living costs that average $70,000 per year, says Schmitter-Edgecombe. “It’s a tremendous challenge that is coming,’’ says Aaron Crandall, a postdoctoral research associate in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science who is working on the project.

Residents are eager to participate in research that will support their desire to age in place, says Lauri Warfield-Larson, health services officer at Horizon House.

“As care providers, we need to understand what technology can offer as we serve future consumers who will expect to remain in their homes even with decline,’’ she says.

Currently, there are a few technologies that can help with the challenges of aging, such as wearable buttons that people can activate if they fall.

Regarding clinical treatments for people with mild cognitive problems, “there are no gold standards of care out there,’’ says Schmitter-Edgecombe.

As part of the study, researchers will install between 30 and 40 sensors in each apartment, including motion, door, power metering, and temperature sensors. Motion detectors will make up the majority of the sensors, and will monitor residents’ activities as they move from room to room in their apartments. Data will be collected continuously. Half of the study participants have mild cognitive problems and the other half are healthy.

Unlike some home monitoring systems, the research project does not include any cameras or microphones. “Respecting privacy is a primary tenet of the project,’’ says Crandall. “We want to monitor, not watch, residents.’’

The researchers expect to find patterns in the data that will help them discern and quantify changes in residents’ health or possible decline. The sensors will be collecting vast amounts of data throughout the day on each resident, collecting information that will show their daily activities, such as brushing their teeth or cooking dinner. By having good information on these important activities that make it possible for people to live independently, the researchers intend to help caregivers better quantify and discern any changes that might indicate that people are losing their ability to function on their own. They will be comparing the information collected from the sensors with the typical medical assessments that are done to assess declines. The researchers also plan to develop computerized prompts for residents, reminding them of important activities that could help them to live in their homes longer.

“We hope to automatically detect signs of decline via the computer so that care providers will better be able to know the capabilities of their patients,’’ said Crandall.

The researchers are hoping that the initial pilot project at Horizon House leads to a larger, more comprehensive study, which would follow a larger number of elderly residents for a longer period of time.