Using smart technology to enhance home safety for the elderly

May 10, 2021 08:44

According to the latest population projections from 2017 to 2066 released by the Census and Statistics Department, the elderly aged 65 or above will constitute 30% of the population within 15 years. The situation of elderly population exceeding 2.5 million is expected to last for 30 years. As the problem of population ageing is getting worse, the government should review existing policies for the elderly as soon as possible, and strengthen community care measures accordingly.

Among various elderly care measures, it is particularly critical to improve the home safety awareness.

A community survey found that as high as 40% of the elderly have experienced accidental falls at home. Falls not only cause physical and mental trauma to them, but it also imposes a heavy financial burden to the society. A study released 10 years ago estimated that the 25 million falls suffered by a 20 million elderly population in China every year incurred direct medical costs of about RMB 5 billion and social costs of RMB 60 to 80 billion.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States analysed data collected from 2007 to 2016 and found that 3 million elders were treated in emergency departments for fall injuries each year. The resulting medical costs were as high as US$50 billion each year. It is also estimated that by 2030, falls will cause 7 deaths every hour in the older population.

In Hong Kong, about one in five community-dwelling elders aged 65 and above suffers from the incidence of falls every year. The number of elders who fall and seek medical advice has increased significantly. The Accident and Emergency Medicine Academic Unit of the Faculty of Medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) studied the data on elderly trauma in the Prince of Wales Hospital and found that during the 10 years from 2006 to 2015, the number of elderly injuries due to accidental falls increased more than four times.

Accidental falls may cause broken bones and even death. It is found that death rate due to falls among the elderly aged 55 to 70 is 7.5%, while death rate from falls doubles to 17.6% for the elderly aged 70 or above.

In daily life, many elderly people often lose balance and fall accidentally, causing bone and muscle injuries, pneumonia, dehydration, and hypothermia. Very often, they also develop post-fall syndrome, the fear of falling deters them from participating in social activities, which greatly affect their quality of life. For some elders, falls even trigger various injuries and sequelae, including cerebral hemorrhage, heart disease, pelvic fracture, resulting in loss of mobility and self-care ability which call for special care.

An assessment conducted by the CUHK Jockey Club Centre For Osteoporosis Care and Control reveals that 30% of the 1,500 elders who have fallen once would fall again within one year. However, early identification can reduce repeated falls. The Department of Physics of the Hong Kong Baptist University has developed Hong Kong’s first "portable body motion analyser for elderly fall risk assessment”. One only needs to input the elder’s basic information such as age, height and weight, then ask the elder to wear a belt equipped with a chip sensor and perform three sets of motion, including standing on the spot for 30 seconds with eyes open and closed, walking 20 to 30 steps, and standing up and sitting on a chair within 30 seconds to establish the basis for analysis. The cloud system connected to the belt and the gait analyzer will generate an analysis report in 5 minutes.

The analysis report shows the load distribution of the elder during walking. For example, in order to reduce stress on the painful area, the patients usually adjust their posture resulting in uneven load and walking speed during walking. The medical staff can then find out that the elder may suffer from pain, leg length discrepancy, or flat feet. According to the U.S. estimate based on the data of elderly falls in 2012, as long as the high-risk elderly (such as those who have insufficient balance ability) are identified early and appropriate treatment is given, the annual medical costs saved for each state can be over US$8 million.

In fact, the main causes of elderly falls are sarcopenia and osteoporsis. The teams from the University of Hong Kong and the City University of Hong Kong have jointly developed a new wearable smart robot system. The robot is like knee pads, the elder only need to wear it and its smart nano sensor and distributed drive system will assist the elder to exert their knee’s strength to complete standing, walking and other actions to ensure that they can walk steadily, reducing the risk of falling.

At present, there is a superb collection of elderly home safety technology in the market. As long as we make good use of them, we can create a friendly living environment for the elderly.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong

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