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Getting Better With Age

More than 40 million people in the United States are 65 or older, a number expected to reach 55 million by 2020. Keeping this growing elderly population safe, healthy, and thriving is becoming increasingly important as baby boomers age. UT Arlington's interdisciplinary research endeavors exploring exercise, memory, high-tech homes, and mental health in minority groups aim to help aging Americans live longer and more independently.

HOME, SAFE HOME

Home isn't just where the heart is—it's also where potential hazards lie. That's especially true for the 31 percent of America's elderly population who are choosing to live alone.

To help keep these seniors safe in their homes, the Heracleia Human-Centered Computing Laboratory explores ways to unobtrusively monitor their daily activities to detect situations when they might need assistance.

Led by Fillia Makedon, chair of the Computer Science and Engineering Department, the researchers have set up a mock apartment outfitted with sensors that transmit radio frequencies. These sensors—which are placed on beds, thresholds, the refrigerator, a "smart drawer" where medication is stored, and other places—are monitored and then matched to a pattern of expected daily activities. If something unusual is detected, an alert is sent.

"If, for example, a fire alarm sounds, then a central location that is in charge of wirelessly collecting signals from different elderly apartments would be alerted," explains Dr. Makedon, the Jenkins Garrett Professor of Computer Science and Engineering. "The unexpected event could also be an absence of something, such as a person not going into the kitchen at all, which would indicate that he or she has not eaten."

Apartments can be equipped with different types of sensors, including those that capture movement, temperature, sound, and other elements.

"Our ultimate goal is to facilitate 'aging in place,' where people can decide the level of monitoring support they wish to have to feel better about staying at home alone, even if it's for just a few hours at a time," Makedon says.

Pablo Mora

AIDING ELDERLY LATINOS

Psychology Assistant Professor Pablo Mora believes that to improve elderly Latinos' experience with mental health, he must ask a lot of questions. He recently began surveying the experiences of 140 Latinos age 55 and older.

That group has poorer physical and mental health outcomes than non-minority individuals, and cultural differences could play a role.

"We're anxious to learn whether there are differences in the way people experience depressive symptoms and also how they think about them," Dr. Mora says. "We want to know how their beliefs influence decisions to seek care."

He also will interview up to 100 senior citizens of other races to make comparisons. Mora conducted his first interviews at Mission Arlington, a nonprofit that provides some health care. His work is funded by The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

LIVING SMARTER

Researchers from the College of Engineering and College of Nursing hope that by making homes smarter, they can help seniors, injured veterans, and people with disabilities live safer and happier lives.

In late 2010 the University created the Smart Care center, a discovery and demonstration venue for technologies designed to assist those populations. There, researchers evaluate the usefulness of existing medical monitoring devices and integrate advanced sensors, wireless communication, and other technologies into a simulated home environment.

The research team includes Interim Vice President for Research Carolyn Cason, and Associate Professors Manfred Huber and Gergely Zaruba and Senior Lecturer David Levine from the Computer Science and Engineering Department. Nursing Assistant Professor Kathryn Daniel is the program manager.

Technologies slated for evaluation include a bathroom with a health-monitoring toilet, an electronic medication delivery and reminder system, and a sleep center equipped with sensors to monitor sleep disturbances.

Daniel, Cason, and Huber
Crystal Cooper

EXERCISING THE BODY AND MIND

What if memory loss due to old age wasn't inevitable? Research that combines exercise and cognitive tests may someday give seniors a greater ability to remember.

Crystal Cooper, a graduate student in health psychology and neuroscience, has worked with a group of seniors 60 to 80 years old for almost a year. First, she and her colleagues established a baseline for their cardiovascular, physical, and cognitive functions. Then, the group was tested again as they participated in a six-month exercise program that included treadmill sessions three times a week. The same steps will be repeated with more seniors as the study progresses.

"We look at a variety of factors. But the thing we're most concerned with is memory," says Cooper, who is conducting the research under the direction of psychology Associate Professor Timothy Odegard. "Most of the previous research hasn't dealt with the loss of episodic memory, which is a chief complaint of older adults."

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