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Sensors help seniors live at home longer

Murray Goodwin (right) displays a Philips Life Line pendant that he wears at his Warren, Minn., home. The pendant is part of technology in his home that detects movement and is part of a research project by the Good Samaritan Society. Corey Jorgenson (left) of the Good Samaritan Society in Larimore, N.D., helped assist Goodwin with the new technology. photo by Eric Hylden

Murray Goodwin is being "watched" in every room of his house, and he doesn't mind a bit.

Small sensors installed throughout his Warren home track his movement and alert health providers to changes that may signal a health problem. They contain no cameras or microphones and each is about the size of a night light.

"I don't even notice them, unless I look for them," said Goodwin, 79, who's prone to falling.

He's part of LivingWell@Home, a program that helps older Americans stay healthy, independent and living at home as long as possible, said Rita Raffety, administrator of the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society in Larimore, N.D.

"It's a whole new way to look at health care," she said. "It has great potential."

The Good Samaritan Society, headquartered in Sioux Falls, S.D., runs the program with a three-year, $8.2 million research grant from an anonymous donor. The program, now in its second year, involves 1,600 seniors in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.

More study participants are needed in the Larimore Society's service area, which covers eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota.

The goal is 110 people and 28 are on board so far, Raffety said.

Better, cheaper

The project "will decrease medical costs and the amount of staff we need and, most important, provide better care," Raffety said. The sensors allow medical conditions to be detected early, when they usually cost less to treat, she said.

Researchers want to determine if the program "has reduced the number of re-hospitalizations and transitions to higher levels of care," said Sherrie Petersen, the Society's innovation program manager in Sioux Falls.

If the program succeeds in cutting medical costs, the federal government may fund it in the future, Raffety said.

In addition, data collected during the project will be analyzed by researchers at the University of Minnesota.

"This is cutting-edge work," said Leslie Grant, who leads the research team there. Studies of this kind, she said, "have been done in pieces, but not as an integrated approach, on a large scale, using various technologies and monitoring" by health care professionals.

Tech array

The technology, developed by Philips, can detect a problem even before it's detectable in the clinic.

Sensors detect trends in movement, bathroom use, bathing habits and sleep quality, said Petersen. Over time, she said, it determines "what that person's 'normal' is" and reports abnormalities, for example, a spike in the number of bathroom visits.

"That's a red flag, and we should call and check," she said. "It could mean there's a health concern that needs attention, or maybe they just had guests."

The sensor also has "passive impact detectors" that show someone has fallen, she said. "It begins scanning, looking for any movement, such as if the person is trying to get up.

"If there's no movement in 30 minutes it will send a message to the Philips company, which sends a message to the home saying, 'We've detected there may have been a fall; are you all right?' If there's no response, they would dispatch help."

Sensor monitoring is done in Sioux Falls, she said, while blood pressure and other information gathered by tele-health equipment will go to Larimore. The Life Line, a pendant worn around the neck, sends a call for emergency assistance to a trusted friend or relative of the user, she said.

"We want to demonstrate how this suite of technologies can be used to get a better picture of what's going on," Grant said, "so that we can improve the clinical processes for chronic disease management in the home."

Organizing and paying for services for the elderly is a challenge, he said. "We do well with acute episodic illness. If you have appendicitis or a hip fracture, you go to the hospital, get treated, go home.

"But there's no ultimate cure for the chronic diseases older Americans must manage for the rest of their lives."

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Reach Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or send email to