Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Aging With Disability Renews Grant
In the United States, 46% of Americans 75 and older and 24% of those 65 to 74 report having a disability, according to estimates from the Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey.
Projects associated with the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Technologies to Support Aging Among People With Long-Term Disabilities, also known as “TechSAge,” are exploring the potential of technology to support people aging with disabilities.
TechSAge recently received a $4.6 million grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research to support another five years of work — the project’s third five-year grant.
“We aren’t starting from scratch,” said Elena Remillard, TechSAge project coordinator who also serves as the site principal investigator for Georgia Tech. “Our team has spent years establishing an infrastructure of research resources, like our participant registry, building technology prototypes, and contributing to the limited knowledge base on aging with disability. We’re ready to dive into the research.”
TechSAge projects include a Smart Bathroom developed to optimize the environment for safe transfers by individuals with limited mobility, a Zoom-based tai chi exercise program, fall detection devices for wheelchair users, robotic showers, wayfinding robots, and rehabilitation training programs.
The goal of TechSAge is to meet the needs of people aging with long-term disabilities where they live, work, and play by conducting advanced engineering research and developing innovative technologies. “It’s about more than meeting basic needs at home,” Remillard said. “People with disabilities are living longer, working longer, and should be able to continue engaging in all the activities they need and want to do. We’re developing user-centered tech solutions to support a wide range of everyday activities, from self-care to exercise.”
TechSAge started at Georgia Tech 10 years ago, first led by Tech faculty members Jon Sanford, Wendy Rogers, and Tracy Mitzner as co-directors. Today, the RERC is a multi-site center including faculty from Georgia Tech, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Georgia State University.
The current project director is Laura Rice, associate professor of kinesiology and community health at Illinois. The leadership team includes Sanford, now research professor of occupational therapy at Georgia State; Rogers, now professor of kinesiology and community health at Illinois; Mitzner, principal research scientist at Person in Design; and Remillard, senior research scientist at the Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation in the College of Design at Georgia Tech.
The research projects engage students at all levels, including undergraduates, graduates, and postdocs, and emphasize training in universal design and accessibility.
Over the last five years, the team has focused on ramping up their interventions and technology solutions to assist older adults with long-term disabilities. Sanford and Georgia Tech researcher Brian Jones have spearheaded the smart bathroom utilizing Georgia Tech’s Aware Home, directed by Jones and supported by Georgia Tech’s Institute for People and Technology. It is a three-story, 5,000-square-foot facility designed to facilitate research and develop innovations in a controlled home environment.
“We developed the smart bathroom to explore how the bathroom environment should automatically adjust to the changing needs of older adults with disabilities over the course of a day or the long term. That goal requires real-time measurement as a user approaches the bathroom and as they interact with the bathroom environment and fixtures during the process of transferring on and off the toilet, or into and out of the bathtub, or shower,” said Jones.
“We have instrumented the space with sensors in the floor, the toilet seat, and the grab bars used for toilet transfer or bathing. We have designed everything to allow for lots of flexibility in the environment, which allows users to adjust the fixtures to their preferences. The Aware Home at Georgia Tech is a valuable resource for this research. During this next phase of funding, we will advance our bathroom transfer studies while further automating the smart bathroom environment and repackage some of the components to move into real homes with a long-term goal of reducing falls.”