ORONO, Maine — From a simple well-water purification device to a comfortable, high-tech protector that decreases the likelihood of a hip fracture in a fall, researchers at the University of Maine are all about aging these days. At a daylong conference Monday, UMaine faculty shared some of their latest aging-related research projects with students and colleagues from across the university system, as with Bangor-area community leaders and service providers.
In Maine, which has the oldest population in the country, aging is an overarching issue that spans academic and political divisions, Carol Kim, vice president for research and dean of the UMaine graduate school, said in her opening remarks. And given support in the Maine Legislature for “aging in place” strategies aimed at keeping Mainers safe in their homes and communities, she said it makes sense to bring the university’s diverse capabilities to the table.
Kim established the UMaine Aging Initiative in 2013, providing more than $400,000 in internal seed funding for 11 projects across the curriculum. Monday’s forum at the Wells Conference Center provided an opportunity to showcase several of these projects.
Carl Tripp, professor of chemistry, discussed the ongoing development of a simple water purification device for use in homes or residential care facilities. Even in situations when water is safe to drink, he said 20 percent of seniors in a recent survey indicated they were dissatisfied with the taste or odor of their water. The “point of use” device he’s developing uses ozone and ultraviolet light to neutralize these tastes and odors as well any dangerous microbes, promoting healthy levels of safe water consumption among older Mainers.
Professor Vince Caccese of the mechanical engineering department is exploring ways to use existing technology aimed at preventing head injury in sports and military applications to avoid hip fractures in the elderly. Falls are a leading cause of serious injury in elderly Americans, with high rates of death or nursing home placement within one year, he told the audience of about 100. Existing hip protectors already commercially available often are rejected as bulky and unsightly, he said, but new materials promise a thin, flexible and minimally detectable alternative.
Ali Abedi of the electrical and computer engineering department discussed wireless electronic tracking devices that can help visually impaired seniors navigate their homes more safely and also alert loved ones if the wearer has stayed too long in the same place. “If someone sits down to watch television and hasn’t moved for 12 hours, it’s probably important to check on them,” he said. The tracking devices can be implanted in a shoe or a “smart cane.”
Other projects presented at the conference included an in-home blood testing device that can eliminate the need for a trip to the local hospital or laboratory, a wireless mattress insert that detects disruptive sleep patterns linked with early dementia, research into workplace dynamics for seniors in the workforce and driving technologies that promise to keep older drivers safely on the road longer.
All these projects have applied for, and in some cases have received, ongoing funding through major sources, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes for Health, the National Football League and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
A community panel that included Michelle Hood, president and CEO of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems in Brewer; Sean Faircloth, chairman of the Bangor City Council; Dyan Walsh, executive director of Eastern Area Agency on Aging; and Shirar Patterson, senior vice president of United Way of Eastern Maine, reviewed vulnerabilities among the older populations they serve and opportunities to improve aging-in-place strategies.
These strategies included developing systems for effectively managing multiple medications to help reduce hospital admissions, establishing multi-age networks of neighborhood volunteers to support seniors in their homes and adapting in-home telemedicine technology to combat social isolation.
A brief welcoming address was provided by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-Berwick, whose KeepMe Home legislation in 2014 established affordable housing, property tax relief and a shortage of hands-on care providers as priority issues for the Legislature.
Eves is currently conducting a statewide “senior listening tour,” inviting older Mainers to discuss issues of importance to them. His next appearance is scheduled for 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8, at Husson University.
Kim, the university’s vice president for research, said the university’s system-wide aging initiative brings multiple perspectives to bear on an issue that ultimately affects all Mainers. In one way or another, she said, “I haven’t found a single researcher who isn’t somehow doing aging-related research. This forum is a way to get to get us all talking about how to be part of the solution.”