Saturday, July 8, 2006

Flashback 2004: RFID Keeps Track of Seniors

By Mark Baard Mark Baard | Also by this reporter
2004-03-19 13:37:00.0

Researchers have built two new systems that use radio frequency identification tags to monitor the elderly in their own homes.

RFID tags, as they are called, are widely used as a part of building security passes, Speedpass key chain devices and E-ZPasses for paying highway tolls. Retailers also expect RFID tags to replace bar codes on store items over the next 15 years.

RFID technology can also improve health care for the elderly, said researchers at Intel Research Seattle and the Georgia Institute of Technology . Caregivers receiving data via the Internet from RFID readers can monitor seniors' daily activities by recording which tagged items they have picked up, and when. By comparing real-time data with a record of an individual's normal daily routine, caregivers can easily spot any significant changes.

Changes in an individual's daily routine often signal the onset of illness and cognitive decline, according to physicians and experts on aging.

The new systems, Intel's Caregiver's Assistant and Georgia Tech's Memory Mirror, will also ensure that forgetful seniors take their medication on time and stick to their prescribed diets, their developers say.

The Caregiver's Assistant even automatically fills out a daily activities form, which is normally completed by caregivers for the elderly when they make home visits.

The researchers presented the Caregiver's Assistant and Memory Mirror at a demonstration of assistive technologies for the aging in Washington, D.C., this week. The demonstration marked the founding of the Center for Aging Services Technologies, or CAST, an organization run by Intel that will promote the development of devices to help people "age in place," which means growing old at home rather than in a nursing home.

In order for the elderly to live at home longer, however, CAST believes seniors will have to sacrifice much of their privacy. Doctors and nurses will need to use RFID and other sensor technologies to keep tabs on them more frequently.

It is unknown whether the elderly will accept this high level of electronic supervision.

Both the Caregiver's Assistant and the Memory Mirror read RFID-tagged items to keep track of their subjects. By placing the tags on items around the home, health-care workers can tell whether and when a patient has taken aspirin or prepared a cup of tea.

RFID tags, some as small as a postage stamp, emit a weak radio signal that can be picked up by RFID reader devices.

Intel's study uses a portable RFID reader smaller than a deck of cards, which is attached to the back of an individual's hand. (Intel said it hopes to see seniors wearing bracelet-sized RFID readers in the future.)

Georgia Tech's Memory Mirror uses RFID readers attached to medicine cabinet shelves and beneath counters.

RFID tags and readers are already controversial. Privacy advocates worry that retailers and government spies might track consumers by following the signals emitted by their RFID-tagged purchases. They also worry the technology could infringe on the privacy of seniors in their own homes.

RFID tag monitoring will make it hard for seniors to slip shots of whiskey into their teacups or sneak sweets banned from their diets without being detected, said a privacy advocate.

"Say you're a diabetic," said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center . "You might want to eat that piece of cake and not tell your doctor about it. With this technology, you might not be able to get away with it."

In the Caregiver's Assistant and Memory Mirror projects, RFID tags are affixed to medicine bottles, teacups, milk bottles and other objects regularly used in the home.

The Caregiver's Assistant reasons that an individual is making a cup of tea when it records that an individual wearing a reader has picked up a kettle, a box of tea and a carton of milk, for example.

The Memory Mirror does less thinking: It displays, in a time line on a computer screen, an image of an item, such as a medicine bottle, after it has been picked up and returned to a reader shelf.

Both Georgia Tech and Intel are carefully designing their plans for the RFID systems to ensure their test subjects' privacy in the coming months. (Intel plans to test the Caregiver's Assistant and its display system, called Carnet, with 15 seniors over a three-week period.)

"The portable reader for the Caregiver's Assistant can be switched on and off by the wearer," said Intel researcher Sunny Convolve. "The person wearing it is in full control of whether they want to be monitored at any given time."

Georgia Tech researcher Quean Tran said the Memory Mirror only records a person's activities for the individual's personal use. It can also help couples avoid repeating tasks that one partner has already performed.

"If one partner has already fed the fish, then the other can see that on the Memory Mirror display," said the researcher.

Epic's Hoofnagle said that RFID monitoring systems can benefit seniors, but only if patients are fully aware they are being watched and their actions recorded. Someone with Alzheimer's disease, for example, may be incapable of making an informed decision about being tracked.

"If a person is not able to make that choice for himself," said Hoofnagle, "than you're acting as a digital nanny, which is something many people don't want."

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