Sunday, January 24, 2010

High-tech monitoring tested in Minnesota group home

From the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. In the picture, Opportunity Manor Project Manager Ken Gossett (left) on Dec. 30 shows some of the sensors they’ll be installing at Foster 9 in St. Cloud. Looking on (from left) are client Jackie Yilek, program director Amanda Hengel and client Rachel Miller.

SARTELL, Minn. — Can high-tech monitoring systems improve care in area group homes?


Opportunity Manor Inc. will try to answer that question this year when it tests a monitoring system in two of its group homes. The Sartell nonprofit operates 17 group homes in the St. Cloud area for people with physical and mental challenges.

“We’re looking for ways to help them become as independent as possible. Technology is the wave of the future, so we asked ourselves ‘How can we use it in our homes?’ ” Opportunity Manor CEO Regan Stommes said.

The system, called WellAWARE, was designed to help elderly individuals live independently. It uses a series of sensors to track activity within a home. Data is monitored off-site and analyzed to detect health and wellness issues.

According to Ken Gossett, Opportunity Manor’s development director, the 12-month pilot program will try to adapt the technology to a group home setting.

It will be the first of its kind in the St. Cloud area.

“All of this is in the embryonic stage,” Gossett said. “We need to take the steps to evaluate how useful and helpful this technology is going to be for us and our facilities in the future.”

Opportunity Manor leaders are hoping the technology will enhance privacy and independence for their disabled clients by eliminating the need for some staff.

“For some things, you want that personal touch. But you don’t always need or want another person in your home. There are other things that can help them,” Stommes said.

Monitoring system

The state paved the way for Opportunity Manor’s program in July 2009 when it created an alternative license for adult foster care facilities. The new license would allow the use of technology in place of staff in certain settings.

For clients, it could mean greater autonomy, improved wellness and reduced costs.

“The question for us is how can we ensure that our clients are still safe, still getting the same quality of service,” Stommes said. “It’s not for everybody, but with technology we believe some people can live more independently.”

So Opportunity Manor set out to find a monitoring system that fit their clients’ needs.

WellAWARE was designed by biomedical engineers and software developers at the University of Virginia. Its sensors remotely track residents in the home at all times. If an emergency is detected, staff is notified.

A data control unit tracks searches for behavior patterns that indicate social or wellness problems.

Opportunity Manor will outfit two of its homes with 14 monitoring devices. To preserve client privacy, no cameras or audio recording devices will be used.

Watchful eye

At first glance, the raw data the sensors collect may appear pretty dull. But once it’s compiled and analyzed, it can paint a vivid picture of activity in the homes.

Motion detectors indicate residents’ locations. Impact sensors can distinguish between falling people and falling objects. If someone falls and doesn’t get back up within a short time, staff is notified.

In bedrooms, bed pads monitor pulse, temperature and restless sleep patterns.

In the kitchen, other sensors note when appliances are in use. If residents forget to turn off a stove or make frequent nighttime refrigerator raids, staff will be alerted.

Both test sites will remain fully staffed as the system is tested. The goal is to provide on-site staff but honor clients’ needs for independence.


Deb Miller’s daughter, Rachel, lives in one of the Opportunity Manor test sites.

“We’re really interested in seeing what they will find with the pilot program,” Deb Miller said. “They tell me it will promote independence, but it’s too new for us to know how it will work out.”

Miller said her daughter is already independent in some ways. She spends time alone almost every day and arranges her own transportation for outings with friends.

“She’s very proud of anything that she can do by herself,” Miller said. “It gives her confidence. She feels very good about not having to ask somebody to help with every single detail in her life.”

Stommes envisions several scenarios where monitoring may allow clients to enjoy greater independence, for instance clients who are capable of taking medications on their own but need reminders.

“That person doesn’t have to have someone in their home all the time just to tell them to take their medicine,” Stommes said.

Instead the monitoring system could generate a reminder call and medicine cabinet sensors would track whether medicine was taken or not.

Stommes said the monitoring could be set up to detect when showers were turned on and off and whether an individual entered the shower. The system might also detect patterns that sleeping staff might miss.

“Why is that client getting up three times a night? Is there a medical condition? The system may be able to detect things staff would not ordinarily notice,” Stommes said.
Down the road, monitoring systems may also save money.

“We won’t know until we do this, but if it does work and you can do it in across a number of homes then you can generate high cost savings over time,” Gossett said.

In Opportunity Manor’s group homes, sleep staff are paid minimum wage and awake staff receive $12 or more an hour. If monitoring allowed them to replace awake staff with sleep staff, Gossett estimates they would cut costs by almost $5,000 per home each year. If it allowed them to eliminate evening staff completely, savings would increase even more.

But Gossett insists cost savings are not the point.

“We are not proposing to alter our staffing patterns as a result of using this technology,” Gossett said. “We want to evaluate how the technology can help us increase safety, improve health care monitoring, increase independent functioning and increase privacy for the residents.”

Stommes said another way to cut costs would be for area facilities to pool their resources.

“If several companies work together, you can dispatch and meet everybody’s needs,” Stommes said. “If people start working together and sharing services you achieve an economy of scale.”

As baby boomers age and competition for health care and support services rises, monitoring systems may become even more desirable.

“Everyone says there is going to be a shortage of people to care for the aging population in the future,” Stommes said.

Opportunity Manor is pursuing technology grants through the state. According to Gossett, the program has received letters of support for the project from Benton and Sherburne counties and recently presented information on the program to Stearns County.

There are 185 licensed adult foster care homes in Stearns County, each licensed for four beds.

Janet Reigstad, community support division director for Stearns County, said it’s too soon to tell how the situation might develop.

“It’s too premature to speculate,” Reigstad said. “We are interested to see what information the pilot program at Opportunity Manor produces.”