National research network taps into the vital role of technology in aging well

Jim Mann likes to challenge himself and others. Eleven years ago, at the age of 58, he sold his management-consulting firm and dove into volunteer and advocacy work. His personal passion is to help educate Canadians about dementia, so that healthcare professionals, family caregivers, researchers and politicians can better understand and support people living with the disease.

Why dementia? Because 11 years ago, Jim Mann was himself diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Jim Mann

“I really enjoy the advocacy work,” says Mann, who lives in Vancouver with his wife, Alice. “It keeps me busy and stretches my capabilities. And it demonstrates that people with dementia can still have active lives and contribute to society.”

His commitment to purposeful living, both for himself and for others with dementia, eventually led Mann to AGE-WELL, a national network of researchers focused on the use of technology to improve quality of life for aging adults and their caregivers. Mann is a member of its research management committee. “I can look at their research as a consumer, as an aging adult and as a person with dementia, to help ensure it is practical and realistic,” he says. “My input has been well received.”

Input from older adults and caregivers is essential for AGE-WELL, because its primary mission is to see its research applied in daily life, particularly in the home. “People have always wanted to age as independently as possible in their own homes and communities,” says Dr. Alex Mihailidis, a researcher at University of Toronto and scientific director at AGE-WELL. “The big difference today, compared to even five years ago, is the role of technology. New technologies are evolving to the point where they can be practical and affordable.”

AGE-WELL’s primary mission is to see its research applied in daily life

Canada’s aging population is driving innovation in home care as well as other healthcare products and services. According to the latest census data from Statistics Canada, people aged 65 and older outnumber those aged 15 and under, for the first time ever. Moreover, the population of people aged 65 is expected to double in the next 15 years.

Dr. Frank Knoefel, a physician at the Bruyère Memory Program in Ottawa and member of AGE-WELL’s steering committee, questions whether Canada will have enough long-term care facilities, or nurses for home care visits, to meet this crisis. “It’s not possible. We have to find new and creative ways to do things – for instance, using technologies to triage those patients or residents who require attention as a priority. This would enable professional caregivers to increase their workload,” he says.

What we can expect

Established in 2015 with more than $36 million in funding from the federal government, AGE-WELL currently boasts more than 60 research projects across Canada, many of which sound like they belong in science-fiction novels. Yet most will become part of the real world soon enough, through steady advances in smart technologies and artificial intelligence, as well as AGE-WELL’s partnerships with hundreds of businesses, non-profit organizations and governments. Here are some examples of research projects underway:

  • Smart furniture (such as beds and sofas) that can monitor a person’s vital signs and movements, and alert caregivers or healthcare professionals of potential problems.
  • Virtual personalized exercise coaching using your computer or smart TV – for people with chronic conditions, early-to-moderate dementia or mobility challenges.
  • A study on driverless cars to determine older adults’ willingness to use this option for transportation, and how it can be modified to meet their needs.
Braze Mobility sensor

A number of AGE-WELL’s products or services are now ready to go to market. For example, in October 2017 Braze Mobility began selling easy-to-install sensors for wheelchairs to prevent collisions with walls and other objects (for more details go to “Let’s Keep Moving—Safely, at Home”).

 

 

Bold steps forward

What sets AGE-WELL apart is its commitment to overcome barriers that historically have left research reports gathering dust on forgotten shelves. “In the research world we actually call this ‘the valley of death’ because there are so many great potential products that go nowhere due to lack of resources to bring them to market,” says Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, a researcher at University of Toronto and CEO of Braze Mobility. Viswanathan also works with other AGE-WELL researchers to help guide them through the commercialization process.

New health technologies and medical devices in particular come with unique challenges, owing to multiple layers of regulatory requirements. For products that have never existed before, manufacturers may need to work with regulators to set new standards. Questions around funding and affordability also need to be addressed: for example, how might governments provide financial assistance to encourage use of these products?

A new mindset

Dr. Andrew Sixsmith, a researcher at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and scientific director at AGE-WELL, stresses that the network’s mandate goes well beyond healthcare. “What’s most exciting about AGE-WELL is its very positive focus on aging. We are trying to innovate to help older adults remain independent as much as possible in all areas of life. That includes social participation, mobility outside the home, work and volunteerism, and so on.”

AGE-WELL’s innovations help older adults remain independent as much as possible in all areas of life

Ultimately, AGE-WELL could have a big impact on attitudes toward aging. “Right now, many see old age as about becoming sick and needing more healthcare,” says Sixsmith. “But we can shift that way of thinking by focusing on the fact that older adults want to continue to be active participants in society. And technology can help make that happen.”