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Aging & Society

“Living Lab” in Georgia Helps Older Adults Keep Their Independence

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On the campus of Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta sits a large three-story gray-green house with white trim and a neatly manicured lawn.

It looks like the kind of residence you might find in a large-scale suburban neighborhood. But no one lives in this 5,000-square foot house.

Rather, Aware Home, as it’s called, is a living lab.

Inside, Georgia Tech students and faculty with a range of expertise such as engineering, robotics, computer science and psychology conduct research, develop innovative solutions and evaluate technology in the home-like environment to gain a deeper understanding of how older adults can age in place and live independently. 

Brian Jones, director of Aware Home, says that in recent years, researchers here have studied assistive robotics, stove alerts, gaming, wearable devices that control in-home systems, smart home systems, machine learning and more. “It’s a place that’s constantly evolving and experimenting,” he says.

Through the research conducted at Aware Home, Jones says he’s found that a number of tech developments can act as simple tools to help people maintain independence as they get older. He shared some of these innovative tools with Get Old: 

Stove sensors. “Did I leave the stove on?” It’s a question that can weigh on anyone’s mind. Now, thanks to sensing technology, there’s a solution. Stove sensors can shut the stove off when not in use, keeping your home safe and easing your mind when you’re away.

Automated blinds. Natural light has a way of lifting people’s spirits. But opening blinds can be a challenge for people who struggle with mobility or reach. With the touch of a button — or a voice command to a computerized home system — automated blinds can make a big difference. “While it’s costly to have these kinds of blinds, it’s also very useful if you’re experiencing dexterity issues or the inability to climb over a couch that the blinds are behind,” says Jones.

Smart lights. With automated lights, you don’t need to be near a light switch to illuminate the room. You can turn lights off and on using your phone or by voice command. That can keep you from stumbling and fumbling around in the dark, or prevent the need to navigate a room full of furniture.  

Smart thermostats. Same goes for the thermostat. By connecting it to a smart home system, you can control the air conditioning or heat from your phone or by voice, without having to reach up to the temperature controls.

Wi-Fi enabled doorbell cameras. Whether you’re home or away, a doorbell camera allows you to interact with a person on your stoop safely. “When we think about some of the challenges that older adults may face, the solicitor at the door may be one that you might not want to deal with,” says Jones. “So this is a way to say, ‘no thank you’ from the comfort of your seat.”  Bonus: the cameras may also help protect against package thieves and improve home security.

Medication tracking tools. You can use an app, a sensor or a dispenser to keep track of whether you’ve taken your medications and alert you when it’s time to do so. “These can be useful to somebody that has to manage a lot of medications,” says Jones. No more, “Did I or didn’t I….?” Now, the answer can be right in front of you.

Jones says that technology and "smart" devices can help bring peace of mind to the people who use them and to their families. Still, he points out that you should always be aware that certain automated systems may track data.  “Know where the data is going and how it’s being used before you select any automated technology for your home,” he says.  “However, when used right, this data can be very empowering, especially if it’s used to feed back into your everyday experience.”

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