A new Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF) program seeks to increase the independence of seniors and, by extension, alleviate the concerns of their relatives or caretakers.
The multifaceted linkAges program, sponsored by PAMF’s David Druker Center for Health Systems Innovation, analyzes seniors’ utility usage patterns as a way to warn caregivers – such as adult children – that a larger issue may exist.
According to the center’s executive director, Martin Entwistle, the signal detection system is part of the program’s larger overall goal to create a connected community that allows a growing senior population to “age successfully” and independently in their own homes.
Statistics compiled by the center reveal that 10,000 baby boomers have turned 65 every day since Jan. 1, 2011. The total number of people older than 65 in the U.S. will double by 2030, research reports.
Other aspects of the linkAges program include a senior-focused resource list – complete with user reviews – and a service exchange network that allows participants to “bank” hours providing a service for a senior, like taking the garbage to the curb for them weekly. That person’s banked hours can later be spent on a service provided by another user in the system. Entwistle noted that the aim is to create a community of trusted individuals – akin to the friendly neighbor who checks in on the elderly person next door.
“Part of the problem we’ve seen is breakdowns in the fabric of society because people become isolated, families are scattered,” Entwistle said. “The things that used to make it possible for this to just happen naturally are no longer in place. So when (elderly) people desire to live in their own home, they become isolated and they become at-risk.”
At the same time, he noted, the program’s utility consumption monitoring system can offer a sense of independence for seniors, without the feeling of having a caretaker constantly peering over their shoulder.
Existing technology tracks usage
The linkAges program uses technology already existing in homes, like PG&E SmartMeters, to track utility consumption and establish patterns of normal usage behavior by participating seniors. For instance, if a senior’s electricity use experienced a significant spike over a span of several days – signaling a potential problem – the system would notify the caretaker of the change.
“Our thinking when we were working on this problem space was this: Is there a way that you can capture information almost without having to deploy anything new into somebody’s home?” Entwistle noted. “What is it that we might be able to track that can help us?”
Entwistle said the system is the product of a developer challenge held 18 months ago. The winner of that challenge, Vevity, is now partnering with the center in a phased rollout of the program. Currently, several of the center’s team members are testing the utility usage system and the program’s additional offerings as well.
“We’re using ourselves kind of as guinea pigs,” he said with a chuckle.
Eventually, he noted, the center hopes to beta test the program in the homes of 15-20 seniors.
“If we track that data that is already being collected, can it tell us enough to know when things might be happening to an individual that we should be concerned about?” Entwistle asked. “It’s patterns of behavior, so it isn’t really looking for one thing happening. If we looked at the electricity usage of this person in their home over a period of time and then looked at it again, has it changed significantly? Is there a standard pattern? We’re all creatures of habit.”
Entwistle readily acknowledged that the program’s largest hurdle remains trust. Still, he noted that the overall benefits of the utility usage system – independence for seniors and peace of mind for relatives and caretakers – should outweigh “big brother” concerns.
“We’re not being blind to people’s potential concerns about having data from their homes captured,” Entwistle said. “But is that a reason for not doing it, when the potential of doing it is so great?”
Entwistle added that the decision to participate in the program will rest with seniors themselves, while someone they already know receives collected utility data.
“Because there are processes to join, so to speak, then you’ll probably trust more of the things that go on within it,” he said. “It’s done willingly, and you know people have been processed to some extent. It’s very different than just opening your door to just anyone.”
For more information, visit innovation.pamf.org.