Technology for the aged - Innovations to help elderly tackle everyday problems

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  • Published 4.10.10

New Delhi, Oct. 3: Subrat Kar can’t forget the day his father had a heart attack — and died — while his mother had a phone in her hand but just couldn’t dial a number to call for help.

The incident stirred Kar, an electrical engineer, into squeezing time away from trying to improve the efficiency of telecommunication networks and directing his expertise on technology solutions to assist the elderly.

He has now developed a prototype electronic device that can assess a person’s walk, posture and knee movements, detect a fall and allow such information to be delivered via a wireless network to a remote observer. The device, to be worn as an armband, can also provide information about the wearer’s exact location within a large apartment complex.

“We’re trying to build a multi-purpose device,” said Kar, a professor of electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi. “From a fall-detector to a gait-tracker to a medication-reminder.”

Kar is among a dozen scientists in academic institutions across India whose work has caught the attention of a department of science and technology (DST) funding programme called Technology Interventions for Elderly, or Tie.

Tie is focused on projects to address problems the elderly encounter and help improve their quality of life, said Vinita Sharma, head of the science and society division at DST.

A physicist, K. Soami Daya, is seeking Tie support to validate her prototype bloodless glucose monitor that holds the promise of eliminating the thumb pricks that many diabetes patients have to endure.

Daya and her student at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute, Agra, have shown that changes in something called the dielectric constant of blood may be tracked by a microwave sensor merely held non-invasively over a thumb.

“Many previous studies have shown that glucose levels in blood influence its dielectric constant,” Daya said. The battery-powered device senses the dielectric constant and uses an algorithm to produce a glucose reading.

Daya said the glucose sensor, when tested against standard blood glucose tests on nearly 700 individuals, has indicated an error of just five per cent. But, she cautioned, the sensor would need to be independently validated.

Daya and Kar are yet to publish their research work, but both are seeking government assistance in filing patents on their technologies. “They look encouraging,” said Yagnaswami Sundara Rajan, chairman of Tie.

“We’re looking for ideas that will translate into affordable products,” said Rajan. Kar’s gait-tracker might cost Rs 5,000 while Daya’s non-invasive glucose sensor out of the laboratory costs about Rs 800.

An entrepreneur in Bangalore who started out in 1987 selling his first design idea --- a diesel generator component --- for Rs 2 lakh and is currently selling solar and wind energy products is also seeking Tie support.

Rajashekhar Hiremath, a mechanical engineer, has spent the past three months thinking up home-grown versions of simple daily-use products for the elderly ---- a walking stick with a built-in torch that lights the ground ahead, a plastic shield to protect fingers while chopping vegetables, an electric wheelchair less expensive than imported versions.

“Our goal is to bring western comfort to Indian price levels,” said Hiremath, whose products are still awaiting intellectual property registration and are expected to touch the market later this year.