How A University Is Using A 105-Year-Old Home To Solve Aging-In-Place Challenges

Excess moisture, faulty structuring and bad wiring. Those are some of the common issues that arise in the seniors’ homes. But the home is where seniors want to remain as they age.

That’s why the University of Pittsburgh is trying to push the needle forward with its healthy home lab. The project brings together researchers from multiple disciplines with the goal of improving the viability of the home environment in order to support aging in place. This means tackling some of the biggest challenges associated with aging-in-place and developing the right technology solutions.

“The primary group that the initiative brings together is the health care services and technology field,” Everette James, executive director of the Healthy Home Lab, told Home Health Care News. “We have occupational therapists, physical therapists, a lot of engineers and we’ve got people from nursing and people from geriatric medicine. We’ve got environmental experts. We’ve brought together this group of researchers that have been working on aging in place and supporting people with disabilities and seniors.” 


But these researchers are not trying to solve these challenges in a vacuum. Instead, the university purchased a 105-year-old Pittsburgh home in April. This home is a demonstration site and community laboratory that will allow them to test solutions, develop interventions and to train students to be able to care for people in the home.

With its structural problems, asbestos, electricity wiring troubles and other issues, the home is a good representation of some of the problems seen in the home setting.

University of Pittsburgh’s Healthy Home Lab

One of the areas the healthy home lab is focused on is environmental hazards in the home, Jon Pearlman, associate professor and chair of the department of rehab science and technology at the University of Pittsburgh, told HHCN.


“We’re trying to develop scalable and practical solutions to support people,” Pearlman, who also serves as the technical director of the healthy home lab, said. “Mold, poor indoor air quality, these types of hazards are prevalent, especially in older homes in the Northeast. There are a range of different technologies on the market that don’t have a lot of evidence behind them. One of the areas that we work with is looking at the different sensors to evaluate and develop rigorous assessments.”

The project then develops interventions. That can mean home modifications to address. For example, a moist or wet basement due to water infiltration. It could also mean technology solutions, such as filtration systems that are added to HVAC, according to Pearlman.

“Those can be combined with sensor technology. And we can set up these systems that simply operate when there are hazards, like if the moisture content is high,,” he said. “Other technologies are integrated into system level solutions, including smart home technology.”

This solution is twofold, it allows for automation, but also can provide some alert functionality to either health care providers, caregivers or family members.

Another area of risk for seniors living at home that the project is focused on are falls. In 2020, falls were the leading cause of death for unintentional injury among seniors, according to the CDC.

“[Fall injuries] are driving over $50 billion in health care expenses annually,” Pearlman said.

The healthy home lab is evaluating technologies that are both on and off the market, as well as developing their own technology.

“We have core technologies that we’re developing right now that are on our product roadmap, related to allowing people to safely move throughout the house, and to address these high risk areas such as bathrooms and stairs,” Pearlman said. “One of the domains that I work in, as a mechanical engineer, is doing new product innovation. This is done in collaboration with people in the community – the users – as well as by benchmarking current technologies that are on the market.”

One of the technologies that the healthy home lab is developing is a railing system and a grab bar system that can go throughout the house. This is meant to enhance and upgrade grab bar technology, which is often resisted by homeowners because of its appearance throughout the home, according to Pearlman.

This technology has a provisional patent, and one of the key goals of the project is to commercialize the technologies developed through the lab.

In addition, the lab is also working on three different stair climbing technologies.

“This recognizes that getting up and down the stairs is incredibly challenging, especially in older homes where the stairs are steep and narrow,” Pearlman said. “There’s really been no innovation to help support stair climbing. We have the railings that have been around for hundreds of years, and then we have chair glide systems, and there’s nothing really in between those technologies for individuals to ambulate up and down the stairs.”

University of Pittsburgh’s Healthy Home Lab

James noted that Medicare is starting to get behind the types of solutions the healthy home lab is developing.

“We’ve been pleased to see that Medicare and Medicaid MLTSS have started to embrace coverage for these items,” he said. “One of our goals is to try to continue to help build an evidence base for the outcomes for these technologies that are being developed.”

Another big push of the program is the aforementioned smart home technology.

“There are a lot of technologies on the market already that are considered smart home technology that can provide some sensing and automation of systems in the home, but these are not integrated into health care solutions, even though they could benefit individuals,” Pearlman said.

The home will be outfitted with smart home technology, such as door locks, window shades, programmable thermostats and automatic lights.

Plus, one of the programs’ teams received a $5 million grant from the Association for Community Living to develop and test smart home interventions.

Ultimately, the healthy home lab has an edge on advancing aging-in-place solutions because it’s embedded in a real environment.

“To come up with practical and scalable solutions, you need to have environments that are realistic,” Pearlman said. “Having the house provides us a very realistic laboratory environment to develop those solutions.”

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