Each year, 2.5 million elderly people are treated in emergency departments for fall-related injuries, according to the CDC. That’s why an MIT professor Dina Katabi has invented a device that not only detects falls when they occur, but also helps prevent falls by helping caregivers determine when their loved ones are especially at risk of falling
Katabi, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science as well as the leader of Networks @ MIT, said that idea for Emerald came out of a need for non-invasive system to monitor seniors that is not dependent on a pendent or wearable.
Although there are multiple personal emergency response systems (PERS) currently on the market, seniors often don’t want to wear a device or will simply forget to put it on.
“Emerald is completely passive,” Katabi explained. “You just turn it on and leave it in the environment. The person doesn’t have to remember to wear anything or charge anything—they can just go on about their life the way they usually do.”
This is particularly important at night.
“When the person just wakes up at 2 a.m. and runs to the bathroom the last thing on their mind is ‘put my wearable on in case I fall’,” Katabi said.
Emerald looks like a wireless router. It can be placed on a surface in the home, turned on, and left alone. To set it up, the device will simply ask the person to walk the perimeter of the space they want monitored.
Emerald detects falls by emitting wireless signals throughout the home and monitoring how bodies interact with them. If it detects movements associated with a fall, it automatically notifies caregivers.
“We all swim in the sea of wireless signals and when we move, those movements affect the wireless signals,” Katabi explained. “So Emerald, that box, is smart enough to detect from changes to how our body interacts with the surrounding wireless signals whether there is a fall and alert the caregiver.”
The wireless signals also allow Emerald to detect the person’s position once they have fallen, and determine whether he was able to get back up, or remains on the ground.
Additionally, Emerald can detect precursors to falls by monitoring the person’s balance and gait. If Emerald detects deviations from regular patterns of movement, it sends caregivers an alert.
The device also unobtrusively measures heart rate and breathing.
Dr. Jean Coppola, the director of the Pace University Gerontechnology program said that being able to monitor an elderly person without a wearable is a “revolutionary” accomplishment.
“Older adults don’t want to have what they call a cowbell around their neck,” she explains. “They don’t want to feel old. They don’t think they’re old. But they have the potential of falling and we all know the risk of falling especially over the age of 85.”
Emerald is not publicly available yet. It has been in the research phase at MIT since 2012 but Katabi and her team are taking it to market. She said she hopes it will be available a year from now.
Alexandra David is a senior at Boston University studying journalism. She was the City Editor of the Daily Free Press and has worked for the IDG News Service and LeadingAge. Her passions include social justice, Boston, and, of course, journalism. Her hobbies include reading (like a good writer) and watching documentaries.
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