New tech for old folk to live at home safely

Ageing is often associated with a decrease in independence, but new technology is helping the elderly cope better with challenges, allowing them to continue living at home safely and comfortably instead of having to go to a care home. This is especially important as the old-age support ratio here has been on a steady decline: There were nine residents aged 20 to 64 years to one over 65 in 2000 but that has almost halved to 5.1 to one last year. Felicia Choo looks at the experiences of three seniors.

Sensors keep close eye on seniors who live alone

Every time Madam Sitee Marnoor, 76, enters and exits her rented one-room flat in Tampines where she lives alone, she is being "watched".

A motion sensor near her main door silently tracks her movements. If the door is not opened for more than 24 hours, it will send an alert to call centre Care Line.

There are other motion sensors in Madam Sitee's bedroom, bathroom and living room.

The presence of the sensors and the Care Line operators are reassuring, said Madam Sitee, who has been living alone since her husband died four years ago.

Madam Sitee, who worked as a cleaner before retiring six years ago, seldom goes out due to knee pain. She has six children, but does not live with them as they do not get along. However, she contacts two of her sons to take her to medical appointments.

The sensors are part of an ongoing project called SHINESeniors that was started in October 2014. It aims to find out how technology can enable elderly people who live alone to remain in their homes while receiving community care.

The study is led by researchers from the Singapore Management University-Tata Consultancy Services (SMU-TCS ) iCity Lab in collaboration with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Institute of High Performance Computing and Eastern Health Alliance. It is expected to end in June.

Madam Sitee Marnoor with a door sensor. A similar one was mounted on the frame of her main door in September. Since then, it has sent out three alerts.
Madam Sitee Marnoor with a door sensor. A similar one was mounted on the frame of her main door in September. Since then, it has sent out three alerts. PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

  • SHINESENIORS

  • What: Motion detectors

    What they do: Alert call centre when they fail to detect senior's movement for a period of time.

    Cost: $250 to $1,350 (depending on sensors used)

The 18 seniors involved in the door sensor trial, which started last September, also have a "friendship button" that lets them request a chat with a Care Line operator.

Care Line, which is run by the Eastern Health Alliance, operates round the clock.

"We adopted a similar approach to the yellow-flag system in Japan, but use a door sensor instead," said Associate Professor Tan Hwee Pink, academic director of the SMU-TCS iCity Lab.

"If the yellow flag is not present, it means that the elderly person has not opened the door for a while, and the community will then check on (them)."

Since the trial started, three alerts for Madam Sitee have been sent to Care Line, although only one was because of a health condition.

She had been having a bad backache and did not open the door while resting at home after seeing the doctor that month.

The other two times occurred when she had not felt like going out or had stayed with her younger son for a period.

Prof Tan said a possible improvement to the sensor system would be to personalise the amount of time the door is unopened for the alarm to be activated so that it fits in with each elderly person's habits.

After more data has been collected from the door sensor trial, the team will use artificial intelligence to learn the "door opening/closing behaviour" of the elderly person and investigate if this is linked to other patterns such as the friendship button activation and call content, he added.

More than 90 elderly people living in estates like Bedok, Marine Parade and Bukit Merah are involved in the project, which trials different combinations of the sensor system.

Prof Tan estimates that the cost of a sensor system ranges between $250 and $1,350.


Gliding safely with walking frame on wheels

It looks like a basic walking frame, but comes with its own set of wheels and a braking system to boot.

When 87-year-old Leck Peow Joo developed end-stage kidney failure five years ago, her arthritis worsened and she struggled to walk.

Her daughter, Ms Suzanne Ng, worried that her mother would not be able to lift a regular walking frame but chanced upon a new type of walking frame that could be used at home for rehabilitation without the need for a physiotherapist.

Called GlydeSafe, the frame has retractable wheels that allow it to be rolled in any direction and an auto-brake system that is activated when a user presses down on it.

Regular walking frames require users to lift the device with each step, which is more strenuous on the person's back.

"My mum has had arthritis for many years, but the minute she started (kidney) dialysis, she had no strength to lift the frame," said Ms Ng, 56, who is her mother's main caregiver.

"So I chose that walking frame because it just glides."

Madam Leck Peow Joo, who suffers from arthritis and end-stage kidney failure, uses the GlydeSafe frame to move around her home. Its retractable wheels allow her to push the frame instead of having to lift it with each step.
Madam Leck Peow Joo, who suffers from arthritis and end-stage kidney failure, uses the GlydeSafe frame to move around her home. Its retractable wheels allow her to push the frame instead of having to lift it with each step.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

  • GLYDESAFE

  • What: A walking frame with retractable wheels

    What it does: Walking aid for frail users who are unable to lift regular frames

    Cost: $90 to $110

Ms Serene Tan, 25, developed the frame when she was a student in Temasek Polytechnic in 2011, with the help of a lecturer in her business process and systems engineering course.

"The main function of that motion is to help people learn how to walk again, similar to how parallel bars in the hospital work," said Ms Tan, who worked with physiotherapists to refine the frame's design.

The frame allowed Madam Leck to move around the house with minimal assistance.

"Walking with this is more stable," she said.

Her condition deteriorated further three years ago, leaving her now partially wheelchair-bound.She now mostly uses the walking frame to move from her bed to the toilet and back.

A GlydeSafe walking frame costs between $90 and $110 - slightly more than its conventional counterpart, which costs between $60 and $80.

Around 500 GlydeSafe frames have been sold here and a further 100 in Belgium. It is available from distributors such as Bion Medical Group, Lifeline, DNR wheels, AlphaMed and Healing Hub at Ang Mo Kio-Thye Hua Kwan Hospital.

It is also being used by various organisations here, such as St Andrew's Community Hospital, social enterprise Pro Age, St Hilda's Community Services and Metta Day Rehabilitation Centre for the Elderly.

Cost aside, Ms Ng is reassured that her mother can walk safely using the frame.

"On a flat surface, it's good; it's definitely very safe, and very stable compared with a walking stick."


Dietitian at his fingertips - thanks to phone app

Mr Albert Koh, who is diabetic, lost nearly 10kg with the help of the GlycoLeap app, which has been giving him advice on his meal choices. The app helps diabetics improve their diets by assessing their daily meals.
Mr Albert Koh, who is diabetic, lost nearly 10kg with the help of the GlycoLeap app, which has been giving him advice on his meal choices. The app helps diabetics improve their diets by assessing their daily meals. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Hospital dispatcher Albert Koh has been living with diabetes for over two decades but the way he manages his condition underwent a radical change 18 months ago - all due to a phone app.

Now before tucking into a meal, Mr Koh, 63, takes a photo of his food and uploads it to the GlycoLeap app, where a dietitian will rate it.

The assessment includes the meal's nutritional content - the amount of carbohydrates, fat, protein, fibre, salt and other micronutrients - the cooking method such as whether it is highly processed, and portion sizes so the balance of nutrients can be checked.

"It helps me because there's a dietitian on hand and I can learn to discipline myself from (indulging in) cravings," said Mr Koh, who did not watch his diet before using the app.

The app, which was developed by local healthcare analytics firm Holmusk, also lets diabetic users log their blood glucose levels and keep track of their activity and exercise data by syncing fitness trackers or smartphone pedometers.

Mr Koh has reaped the rewards of eating more healthily and exercising regularly.

His HbA1c - a measure of average blood sugar level - dropped from 8.7 to 6 just six months after he started using the app. This means he has a lower risk of developing complications related to diabetes. He has also shed nearly 10kg and is now a more healthy 68kg.

  • GLYCOLEAP

  • What: A phone app that links users to a personal dietitian

    What it does: Users snap photos of their meals, log their blood glucose levels as well as activity and exercise data to get personalised feedback on their choices.

    Cost: $20 per month

It helps that the app is something he can use every day to get advice from healthcare professionals, unlike his quarterly visits to the polyclinic, said Mr Koh, who is married with three daughters.

Providing diabetics with easy access to advice from healthcare professionals and not just self-tracking or automated guidance, is the aim of GlycoLeap, said Dr Yau Teng Yan, Holmusk's chief medical officer.

"In healthcare, the human touch is very important - people don't want to interact with a robot or computer about their health, as it can be very private and personal in nature," he added.

"Every user on GlycoLeap is paired with a human coach, who reviews the user's progress and provides him with support, advice and motivation to spur him on."

The app has attracted 1,500 users in Singapore since it was launched in September 2016 on the App Store and on Google Play. A monthly subscription costs $20.

Holmusk plans to introduce a social feature which will let users interact by sharing experiences and supporting one another by the first half of this year, said Dr Yau.

However, the app is not a sure-fire remedy, noted Mr Koh.

"The app is more of a guide. It's up to the individual, whether you want to follow it or not."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2018, with the headline 'New tech for old folk to live at home safely '. Print Edition | Subscribe