RIA, UW Engineers and Taunton Mills tackling falls prevention through technology

The relationship between Schlegel Villages and the researchers, students and partners with the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging carries many benefits for all involved. During two days in June when both organizations hosted the annual Innovation Summit, drawing representatives of all stakeholder groups together, these benefits were illustrated beautifully.

The RIA’s Dr. Jennifer Boger and Taunton Mills kinesiologist Victoria Raimundo shared a story of collaboration that offers a prime example of this partnership in action.

As the Schlegel Research Chair for Technology in Independent Living, Jennifer is always looking for real world problems to solve. During the 2017 Innovation Summit, she introduced herself that way and Victoria came to her. Her challenge was both basic and extremely complicated. During a session related to falls at last year’s summit, people were discussing the common reasons most residents suffer a fall, and self-transferring was an obvious challenge.

“You see a lot of residents transferring themselves (from a wheelchair to a stationary chair, for example) who have impaired gait or their balance is poor, and they don’t want to wait for help, so we thought how can we make these self-transfers more successful?” said Victoria.

Basically, if people decide in the moment they want to get up out of their chair to retrieve something then a self-locking wheel chair that instantly locks its wheels when a person’s weight comes out of the chair would help them be more successful.

“The objective was to create an automatic wheelchair with a locking system that engages as soon as the weight is lifted off the wheelchair,” Victoria explained. It had to be compatible with any chair an occupational therapist might prescribe and it had to be affordable and easy to install.

In the fourth year of the University of Waterloo’s Engineering program, students must tackle a real-world challenge for their Capstone Project, so Jennifer paired a group of students with Victoria and the collaboration began.

Eventually they created a system where four sensors placed under the chair’s seating pad recognize when the weight of a body is in the chair. The students spent a lot of time determining where was best to place the sensors, according to Jennifer, and they discussed how to ensure the sensors would trigger the locking system only when someone was truly trying to get up, versus simply shifting their weight.

With the help of six residents at Taunton Mills, the students and Victoria were able to test the prototype and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive; all involved thought it would be extremely helpful, and they wanted to know how the same technology could be adapted to walkers. They understood the technology and they all felt the added safety was as definite comfort for them.

“Working with the students was an eye-opener for me,” Victoria said. “The language between the two fields is very different . . . and when they were trying to explain the locking system to me, it was like they were speaking French.” The students also had much to learn in the reasoning behind chair design as well, and they learned that using their aptitude for engineering and problem solving could have a real impact on the lives of older adults. They were grateful for the opportunity.

“What it does when you come to (the RIA) with these challenges and give these students opportunities like this is they really understand what a real-world problem looks like and all the complexities and nuances of trying to solve that with a real goal,” Jennifer said, “and that is really special.”

This story was originally published by Kristian Partington, on Schlegel Villages' website. Reposted with permission.