Care of the Aged: There Has to be a Better Way

I’m writing this next to the hospital bed of my 91-year-old mother-in-law (mom) as she struggles to deal with the looming specter of her own passing, and the physical and mental pain she must go through in the meantime. She belittles herself, but she’s sharp as a tack, so we had a good chat, now she’s sleeping.

Figure 1: With the right energy monitor IC, such as the LTC2947 from Analog Devices, powerline energy can be monitored for home devices and displayed on a monitor for all to see, and act upon. (Image source: Analog Devices)

Many of us will deal with this at some point: taking care of an elderly parent. After raising 11 kids, my own mother lived alone and keeled over in the kitchen. As fate would have it, my sister had just come by to visit, so she passed away in her arms before the ambulance arrived. That was 26 years ago, much has changed since then. Now, she wouldn’t have to be alone, not entirely.

As engineers, we’re constantly thinking of how to do things better, of technical solutions to everyday problems. Over the years and now as part of Digi-Key’s editorial team, I regularly see new solutions to specific design problems that if matched with the right components, could solve what seem like really important and interesting problems.

For example, take an Analog Devices precision LTC2947 energy monitor (Figure 1) and pair it with Nordic Semiconductor’s NRF52 Bluetooth 5.0 chip. Then have it transmit the power level to a smart display such as Seeed Technology’s 10.1 inch Raspberry Pi-based 114990836 HDMI LCD display placed on the kitchen wall. With a smattering of these energy meters throughout the home and with some nifty programming, a homeowner can see in real-time the power being consumed by various outlets or devices.

The idea is based on the principle that what gets measured gets done, so by clearly seeing where power is being used unnecessarily, or which devices consume large amounts of power, users can be more conscious of their energy usage.

These are the ideas that pop up over the years, but then bills start rolling in and work has to get done, so it goes by the wayside, like so many other ideas that seem good, useful, and important.

Moving from important to vital

Figure 2: As advanced as hospital beds have become, most elderly would prefer to be monitored at home. How can we better enable that? (Image source: Patrick Mannion)

While there are many ideas that pop into our heads as we go about the home, store, or office, sitting next to a loved one sleeping in a hospital bed kickstarts other ideas, that really are important. Vital, in fact. For sure, hospital beds are really advanced and full of useful sensors, including ones to make sure patients stay put (Figure 2). However, very few elderlies actually want to be there at all, or want to stay put. They’d much rather be in their own home, living independently and moving around as they please.

At some point, we’ll all become dependent, but how long can we delay that inevitability? My mom is here in a hospital bed because her pulse fell to 40 bpm. Dangerously low, but it was detected by a nurse who comes by her home for a few minutes each day. The last time she was in hospital was because she was on pain meds, lost her balance, and fell over.

She was conscious enough to press the emergency button on her necklace. What if she wasn’t conscious? She has the necklace because the last time she fell it was in the shower a few years ago and she managed to get to the phone and call for help. She was a bit banged up, and we all got a fright.

Fear is a big factor, but we can minimize it

Speaking of fright, she’s too anxious to sleep many nights for fear of not waking up. Now, there’s a whole bunch of issues around this, mostly to do with faith, the afterlife, and acceptance, or lack thereof. She’s pretty stubborn, but also scared. My sister passed away from cancer, but she had strong faith and had gone through the various stages to reach acceptance and passed peacefully, and actually helped us to accept it.

However, fear and anxiety are part of getting old, mix that with stubbornness and an independent streak, which is also common, and you have a recipe for disaster. For anyone who’s read this far, you can see where I’m going with this: There’s a big opportunity for designers to come up with a way of monitoring the elderly’s vitals and state of stress in real-time without invading their privacy (no cameras, please). This will provide enormous peace of mind for all concerned.

We need to monitor heart rate, oxygen levels, blood pressure, breathing rate, position, sudden movements, or stops (i.e. a fall). We also need to track medicine intake, as it’s frequently forgotten, or not followed due to side effects. My wife found critical medicine in the back of the closet that mom said she was taking but wasn’t because it made her go to the bathroom too much (understandable when you’re 90 and it’s hard to move at all).

All this needs to be displayed clearly on a home monitor, but also piped to the smartphone or another display at the home of a family member, as well as to the doctor’s office or local hospital.

This isn’t easy to do, of course, or it would already be done. While cameras are good, they’re too invasive. Pulse oximeters are nicely packaged individually but are not practical for all-day monitoring. Maybe partnering with a clothing manufacturer to develop a sleeve for around the biceps that can integrate the sensors might do the trick.

We’ve been talking about this new wave of medical IoT devices for years, so it’s hard to not have a severe case of cognitive dissonance when seeing mom unable to stay home and be safely monitored to avoid issues from developing into crises.

As the ideas percolate, deadlines loom and priorities take over. Right now, I can’t spend any more time thinking about it, but maybe someone else can. The problem is only getting worse, as demographics tell us. The solutions are out there, with you. Make your ideas into practical design solutions. This truly is vital.

About this author

Image of Patrick Mannion After starting in engineering, Patrick Mannion has been analyzing the electronics industry for over 25 years, with a focus on informed editorial to help engineers manage risk, contain costs, and optimize designs. Formerly brand director and vice president of UBM Tech's electronics group, he now provides custom content services.
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