New network to advance research into technology, aging

January 2015 (Vancouver Sun) – Smart wheelchairs, innovative monitoring devices on the way

Intelligent wheelchairs, improved health monitoring and easier Internet access are some of the research projects that stand to benefit from a new initiative.

Aging Gracefully across Environments using technology to support Wellness, Engagement and Long Life (AGE-WELL) will unite researchers and scientists from across the country with industry, clinical, policy and community partners.

“We’re taking this whole area of research to the next level,” said Andrew Sixsmith, the director of the Gerontology Research Centre at Simon Fraser University. Sixsmith is co-lead on AGE-WELL.

“We’re bringing all these people together. It’s OK to do these things on an ad hoc basis, but when you start connecting all these really bright people together, it starts to get interesting. The network is going to be way more than the sum of its parts.”

The selection of AGE-WELL for federal funding was announced in December. On Monday, the Minister of State for Seniors Alice Wong officially announced the amount of that funding — $36.6-million.

Initial research projects will encompass everything from robotics to smart, wearable sensors.

“One of the things we want is to help people working in the nursing home sector to do their job better,” Sixsmith said. “That might involve unobtrusive monitoring of people in nursing homes so the care staff can be more responsive to their needs. For instance, if somebody is in bed and wants to get up, maybe we can provide an alert to a care provider to tell them that sort of thing. At the moment, it’s very hit-and-miss in a nursing home. We’re asking, how can we use technology to improve the processes that are already in place?”

AGE-WELL’s administrative centre will be based at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, a member of the University Health Network. One of its two core facilities will be based at the Interdisciplinary Research in the Mathematical and Computational Sciences (IRMACS) institute, SFU’s home for collaborative interaction. The other will be located at iDAPT Centre for Rehabilitation Research at Toronto Rehab.

Alex Mihailidis, the Barbara G. Stymiest chair in Rehabilitation Technology at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute University Health Network (TRI-UHN) and the University of Toronto, is the other lead on the project.

The funding is expected to support the network for its first five years. After that, Sixsmith says, it’s hoped AGE-WELL will have become sustainable, to have benefited the aging Canadians with new products and services and boosted the economy with new businesses.

“We have a lot of ambition around innovation,” said Sixsmith, who has helped develop a commercial product for people with dementia, the “simple music player.”

“Research in technology and aging is extremely applied. By definition, we should be looking to turn the research into real products.”

He expects some of those products to be generated within the first five years of the network.

“People are going to be bringing in ideas that they already have, and we can turn those into real products and services,” he said. “Some things are going to be longer-term. But we’re fully expecting real things to happen within a relatively short time.”

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