Creating safer, smarter homes

The University of Washington School of Nursing is harnessing the power of everyday items to turn houses into smart homes — and allowing older adults to live independently, thanks to modern technology.

Mary Ruiz

Smart Home Study participant

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Mary Ruiz’s allergy symptoms had been worsening.

Ruiz, 76, who resides in an assisted living facility in South Seattle, assumed it was just a bad allergy season.

But a sensor placed in her apartment by researchers from the UW School of Nursing soon alerted her to the fact that something else could be at fault: The humidity levels in her apartment were troublingly low. And when humidity levels drop, your nose, throat and sinuses react. Even more worrisome than that, low humidity also enables cold and flu viruses to spread more easily and stay alive much longer. So Ruiz went out and purchased a humidifier — a simple solution, but one that could not have been reached without the sensor.

Mary’s home supports her health — and her curiosity.

See her story

“Originally I looked at technologies that were more traditional in terms of monitoring vital signs or capturing symptoms of a chronic disease,” says Demiris. But these devices can be complex, and they often require that an older adult or a family member learn how to work them.

Instead he turned to common household devices such as video cameras, digital thermometers and door, window and motion sensors. In the right combination, Demiris discovered, these ordinary devices can turn an average house into a smart home — one that’s easy for a non-technophile to manage.

If someone opens the refrigerator several times over the course of an hour, or if they’re becoming more sedentary or using the bathroom more frequently, these could all be early indicators of a specific condition or health issue.

The devices catch deviations from a daily routine that a person may not notice, but which, over a period of time, can often mean something more serious.

“If someone opens the refrigerator several times over the course of an hour, or if they’re becoming more sedentary or using the bathroom more frequently, these could all be early indicators of a specific condition or health issue,” he says. Dementia. Alzheimer’s disease. Frailty. All conditions that benefit from the earliest possible detection — and action.

How to turn a house into a smart home

When deciding where to do his research, Demiris didn’t turn to a lab. Instead, he brought the study to the participants, in their own houses.

The older adults in the study were residents at local assisted-living facilities, and they opened their homes to the research team for three months.

At the outset of the study, participants met with Demiris and research assistant Yong Choi, a Ph.D. student in biomedical and health informatics, to choose which sensors they wanted to have installed. In addition to a humidity gauge, Mary Ruiz opted for light and temperature sensors, as well as a video camera so she could keep an eye on her cat, Sparky.

Next, Choi set up the devices in their home, along with a small laptop that collected all the data. The participants then went about their daily lives, sometimes forgetting the devices were there.

  • 1. Bathroom wall

    Multisensor

    Tracks temperature, humidity and brightness of lights.

  • 2. Bathroom door

    Small sensor

    Tracks how many times the door is opened.

  • 3. Nightstand

    Multisensor

    Motion sensor that tracks how many times you get out of bed.

  • 4. Front door

    Small sensor

    Tracks how many times the door is opened.

  • 5. Refrigerator door

    Small sensor

    Opening the refrigerator multiple times in an hour can be an early sign of dementia.

  • 6. Window

    Small sensor

    Tracks how many times the window is opened.

  • 7. Living room wall

    Multisensor

    Tracks temperature, humidity and brightness of lights.

  • 8. Side table

    Video camera

    Used for a variety of purposes, including tracking activity levels.

After collecting data for six weeks, Choi worked with the patients to turn the information into an easy-to-understand infographic that the participant could choose to share with a family member or health care professional.

Seeing that you watched TV on the couch for six hours is more powerful than just knowing that you should be more active.

“This collaborative aspect of the study is key,” says Demiris, because it inspires people to take on a more active role in their health care. Demiris also hopes this will help people become more engaged in health care decision-making. “For example, seeing that you watched TV on the couch for six hours is more powerful than just knowing that you should be more active.”

Researcher Yong Choi meets with Smart Home study participant Mary Ruiz.

Ph.D. student Yong Choi installed the sensors in each participant's home.

Mary Ruiz would often use the video camera to watch her cat, Sparky.

Mary Ruiz fills her humidifier. Sensors in her home alerted her to the fact that humidity levels were low.

Yong Choi installs a sensor on Mary Ruiz's front door.

Mary Ruiz, a participant in the Smart Home study.

One sensor that Mary Ruiz hopes will eventually be available is one that can turn her lights off after she falls asleep.

A small multi sensor rests on Mary Ruiz's nightstand. It measures temperature, humidity and brightness.

The future of healthy aging

The initial results of Demiris’ study are promising. In addition to Mary Ruiz, several other participants have taken their data and started discussions with their clinicians. One saw that she had slowly become a night owl and needed more sleep; another used video camera footage to make sure she was staying active.

Eventually, Demiris hopes that the study will show assisted-living facilities and retirement communities that sensors should be standard features in each residence.

With additional support, the School of Nursing hopes to build on Demiris’ work through the creation of a new home health care simulation lab. And by focusing more on the burgeoning area of informatics, the school is poised to lead the field as it takes on a bigger role in future health care.

Students also stand to benefit from taking part in such cutting-edge opportunities with training that equips them to provide quality care to patients who rely increasingly on technology.

“We have these incredible technologies that, when put together, can help us better understand our daily lives and needs,” says Demiris. “I believe that technology can empower more people, especially older adults and their families, to become actively involved in their own health care.”

Ruiz and Choi talk during the installation

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