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Smart Home: Alexa, Make My Bed

Well, not quite yet. But smart devices are allowing patients a new degree of autonomy. At Penn Nursing’s new Home Care Suite, that’s just the beginning.

The next time you’re at a friend’s house, pay attention to how they adjust the living room lights or the thermostat. Or rather, who does the adjusting. Smart technology— devices that can automate everyday tasks and even augment our behavior— is already transforming the way many of us live. But connective home maintenance systems like Amazon’s Alexa and wearable smart tech such as the formative Fitbit are just the beginning of where this trend could take us, and what it might inspire. Just ask George Demiris PHD FACMI—a Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor who’s currently building a first-of-its-kind “Smart Home” caregiving suite right here at Penn Nursing.

Dr. Demiris—whose federally-funded research has primarily involved hospice care and utilizing technology to improve health outcomes for adults and their caregivers—is taking a “constructive” approach to harnessing smart tech for medical benefits. The foundation for his latest project is the Nursing School’s Home Care Suite. Demiris is currently re-wiring and retrofitting the at-home caregiving simulation lab with smart technologies that can monitor a patient’s health and adjust the suite environment to enhance the patient’s comfort and, in certain cases, promote their recovery.

Illustration by Ryan PeltierIllustration by Ryan PeltierThe potential here is groundbreaking. The Smart Home not only stands to offer the patient more autonomy in controlling their surroundings, but it may also alleviate stress for caregivers and help them make sounder, more informed decisions based on their patient’s measurable health data, or the prognosis for what lies ahead. It could render home care far more pleasant and effective for everyone involved. But in order to take this idea from the abstract to reality, Demiris understood from the get-go that he needed to create a physical and functional Smart Home to tinker with.

“Brainstorming new solutions is more effective when it’s done in an environment that looks more like the real environment than just a conference room,” Demiris explains—alluding to the layout and features of the Home Care Suite. The lab resembles a one-room apartment that contains a bed and living area, natural light, a working bathroom and kitchenette, and even a washer and dryer. It’s the ideal venue in which to test the efficacy of smart technologies on everyday human rituals like eating, washing, socializing, and sleeping. And once the suite has been refurbished into the Smart Home that Demiris envisions, he’ll recruit undergraduate students from Nursing, Engineering, and other Schools to test run every technological feature of the new space.

“We want to be as creative as we can,” Demiris says. “[We want] to use that space as an incubator for innovation in the home, for researchers and educators on campus.”

Considering that Demiris began his research career by turning an old WebTV adapter into a vital sign monitoring device for patients (“It had a modem and a little video camera and you could do extremely horrible-quality video calls,” he told Penn Today,) the launch of the Smart Home project is a quantum leap. But it’s also a testament to Demiris’s irrepressible curiosity, and his comfort around the labs and lecture halls of the Nursing School—which he cites as a natural home for a project as unconventional and team-oriented as the Smart Home.

“Penn has embraced innovation in a way that makes it exciting for this type of collaboration and this type of work,” Demiris says. “It’s much more part of the culture.”