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Carleton and the Bruyère Research Institute are making aging-in-place a reality

Clinicians, engineers, and industrial designers are bringing smart-home solutions to life

Carleton, Bruyere
From left: Heidi Sveistrup, Dr. Frank Knoefel and Chantal Trudel

We all know our society is aging, but family physicians like Dr. Frank Knoefel – who is dedicated to caring for older Canadians – understands the problem better than most.

Knoefel holds the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind-Bruyère Research Institute Chair in Primary Health Care Dementia Research. He has been a family physician and expert in the Care of the Elderly with Bruyère for 27 years.

When he started, aging-in-place wasn’t always an option. “I wanted to ensure my patients didn’t end up back in hospital two weeks after I discharged them,” said Knoefel. “But it was hard to get timely and sufficient home care.”

So when Knoefel heard from friends about new-fangled technology they were using to automate their homes, it gave him an idea — but he needed a Carleton University professor, computer engineer and smart-technology expert like Rafik Goubran to make it happen.

Goubran, now Carleton’s Vice-President (Research and International), was receptive and soon Knoefel was co-supervising Goubran’s engineering students who were researching smart technology.

Together they built a foundation of knowledge by publishing more than 200 articles and training dozens of students. It was an essential step before “getting down to brass tacks” as Knoefel likes to say to transfer that knowledge to the real world.

The Carleton U and Bruyère Research Institute smart apartment

In 2003, Knoefel and Barbara Schulman, former vice-president, planning and partnerships of the SCO health service, co-founded a multidisciplinary program called Technology Assisted Friendly Environment for the Third Age (TAFETA). The program was designed to connect public and private companies working on aging-in-place solutions so knowledge they had accumulated through research could be transferred to the real world.

With help from partners such as the Dementia Society of Ottawa and Renfrew County and the National Research Council of Canada, several research projects involving smart-health technology have taken place – including the creation of the first TAFETA Smart Apartment which opened at the Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital in 2005.

The apartment was established as the program’s test site for the integration and testing of smart age-tech solutions for real-world applications, many of which are being designed by Carleton University students.

In one scenario, the team created a smart-home solution for a gentleman living with dementia who often wandered during the night.

Pressure and motion sensors were used to activate smart lights that guided him to the bathroom, and if he accidentally went to the kitchen instead of back to bed, he heard his wife’s voice gently reminding him where to go through a wireless speaker.

The impact was huge. After their first pilot project with 16 families, no one wanted to return the technology. Dr Goubran reflects on this success explaining that “often solutions can be relatively simple from an engineering perspective but the impact on people’s wellbeing is significant”.

Today’s Carleton-Bruyère team is a well-oiled machine

“Our group is well past the honeymoon phase,” said Heidi Sveistrup, CEO and chief scientific officer at the Bruyère Research Institute.

The relationship was further cemented when Goubran, Knoefel and Sveistrup co-founded the AGE-WELL National Innovation Hub: Sensors and Analytics for Monitoring Mobility and Memory (SAM3); a three-way partnership between Carleton, the AGE-WELL NCE and Bruyère. SAM3 provides regional capacity for industry/clinical/academic/user collaborations to build and test solutions through trials with real users in clinical and home settings.

One of the people Sveistrup can call with the push of a button is Chantal Trudel, director of the Centre for Community Engagement, associate professor in Industrial Design at Carleton and protégé of one of TAFETA’s founding members, Lois Frankel. Her role is to look at aging-in-place both in the home and in the community.

“Transportation is how seniors keep in touch with their friends and families,” she said, noting that an industrial designer’s approach goes beyond high-tech solutions like self-driving technology and into service design, or the design of systems and operations.

Sveistrup adds that as a leading academic institution, Carleton has been a valuable partner providing research expertise and trainees who take a multi-disciplinary approach to health challenges including those faced as we age-in-place.

The AGE-WELL-Carleton-Bruyère SAM3 Hub has expanded to include researchers interested in developing new curriculum for learners starting careers in the field, industry partners who are working with the team to develop new innovations and older adults and families who are critical for the design and development of any technology and who will be key beneficiaries.

As the work between the hospital and Carleton University continues, and the technological solutions grow more complex, there’s no denying the original partnership between two persevering groups laid the foundation for significant progress.