Geoff Fernie
Dr. Geoff Fernie overlooks HomeLab, KITE's "home within a lab," where researchers test age-in-place technology. (Photo: The KITE Research Institute at UHN

When Ron Beleno's father, Rey, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2007, he made it clear to his family that he wished to remain in his own home as long as possible. He felt that being at home would be most comfortable and would give him some semblance of independence.

Fortunately, Ron, who was in his late 20s at the time, was able to take on the role of caregiver and keep his ailing father at home until he passed away in early 2018.

While it wasn't easy to manage work and caregiving – he's an entrepreneur and an aging-in-place advocate with busy hours – he wanted to respect his dad's wishes, and he knew that having him at home would immeasurably improve the final years of his life.

"Aging in place really comes down to choice. It's about the values of an individual and their own wishes and dreams," Ron says. "Care facilities can be the right choice depending on the circumstances, but for many people, like my dad, leaving their own home means giving up comfort, family, their social networks and quality of life."

Ron was able to make at-home caregiving manageable, in part, because he put his computer science background to work. He implemented various technologies, from low-tech physical aids like poles and handgrips to keep his dad from falling, to higher-tech video cameras and GPS trackers that allowed him to keep an eye on his dad while he was away.

Technical support

If other people had access to the same kind of technology that he did, then more seniors would likely stay at home after becoming ill, he believes. It's an issue that's become even more urgent in the face of COVID-19 as families do their best to keep loved ones away from viral spread in long-term care facilities, while simultaneously trying to have as little face-to-face contact as possible.

"Technically, anyone can age in place if they have unlimited resources, but we send people to care facilities because there are more resources and a better base of knowledge there," Ron notes. "If an at-home caregiver is supported by the right tools, the person who they're caring for can age in place much longer."

Ron's experience has led him to work as an advisor with AGE-WELL, a technology and aging network that supports the development of technologies and services to help people age gracefully at home. It is federally funded through the Networks of Centres of Excellence, and works with researchers across the country.

AGE-WELL's host institution is UHN, and its physical home is at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, which has created a special bond between the organizations. Researchers at KITE, the research arm of Toronto Rehab and a frequent collaborator with AGE-WELL, have long understood that remaining at home provides a better aging experience than a nursing home.

In 2019, AGE-WELL conducted a poll that canvassed Canadians aged 50 and older on their feelings about aging, health and technology. Eighty per cent of respondents aged 50 to 64 said that they are confident using current technology, such as smartphones and GPS systems. That percentage fell to 74 per cent for respondents over the age of 65. But more than 80 per cent of that group do think technological advancements can help them stay safe, independent and remain in their own homes longer.

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