Activity monitoring for seniors living alone

Emergency Angel

A Raspberry Pi, an Arduino, a flow sensor, a webcam with a microphone, several Python scripts, and speech recognition tools provide an affordable health monitoring system for seniors based on water consumption.

In this age of demographic change, people live longer, and in their later years, often live alone. Grandma or Grandpa might not need assisted living just yet, but it's nice to have a monitoring tool around to help identify emergencies and inform family or friends. In fact, it could be a question of life or death.

Fear of Falling

Within the next few years, the proportion of people aged 65 and older will increase to the extent that some unkind spirits are already speaking of a "silver tsunami." Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, estimates "those aged 65 years or over will account for 29.5% of the EU-27's population by 2060 (17.5% in 2011)" [1, their figure 2]. In the United States, the same age group is expected to nearly double by 2030, from 40 to 72 million, accounting for 20 percent of the population (13 percent in 2010) [2]. A similar development is expected in other industrialized nations. About 20 percent of people in the 65- to 70-year age group will be living alone. This number will remain more or less constant in men with increasing age. But the proportion of women living alone will increase to 56 percent for those over 80 years of age [3] because of differences in life expectancy.

Falling and fear of falling play an important role in the 65-plus age group. Several studies [4] [5] show that approximately one third of seniors over the age of 65 fall at least once a year. In many societies, falls among senior citizens are a major cost factor in healthcare. Although most falls are harmless, five to 10 percent have serious consequences [6]. Single people who are unable to get back to their feet and call for help after a fall often remain undetected for several hours or longer. A frightening 3.2 percent of people over the age of 65 living alone are found helpless or dead in their homes every year [7].

Sophisticated Sensors

Scientists have been searching for solutions to the worrisome problem of seniors falling for more than two decades. In 1991, Lord and Colvin [8] presented a system comprising video surveillance and acceleration sensors designed to help automatically detect falls. In the following years, scientists from different countries have developed a variety of technologies for detecting falls and alerting helpers in good time [9].

These technologies relied on acceleration sensors, (3D) video surveillance, and motion and pressure sensors. Systems that rely on near-field communication (NFC), microphone arrays, or sensors on everyday objects were also designed and tested. These technologies have become more sophisticated over the years, and now they can do more than simply discover whether a single person is doing well. They can even tell whether the person made tea or coffee for breakfast or identify behavioral changes that could be a sign of incipient dementia.

As intelligent and sophisticated as these technologies might be, they usually fail for several reasons: They require laboratory conditions, extensive remodeling of the living space, a significant degree of technical knowledge, or a large amount of money, usually several hundreds or thousands of euros [10]. Low-cost solutions, such as alarm devices worn around the neck or strap-on acceleration sensors often fail because of lack of compliance of the target group; the devices are forgotten or are simply impractical, because they must be removed in the shower and because the batteries must be actively managed.

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