Who Will Watch You Fall? A Radar Detection Program for the Elderly

With age comes risk of serious injury or death related to falling down. In the next three decades, the number of Americans over 65 will double. Many want to live at home indefinitely. One man has a solution.

"I've fallen, and I can't get up," Mrs. Fletcher, an elderly woman alone in a blue smock, shouts from her bathroom floor. By some fortune, Fletcher is wearing a Life Call remote control device. Rattled but systematic, she presses a button that activates her speakerphone. A dispatcher responds, and she is able to yell to the phone in the room adjacent. She cannot go to it because, you’ll remember, Mrs. Fletcher cannot get up.

Life Call, 1987

"We're sending help immediately, Mrs. Fletcher," says the collected voice on the other end of the line. The owner of said voice, Gerald, is concerned but in control. He is in the sweet spot of his career; old enough to be authoritative and expert, but not so old as to be stereotyped as waning in competence. Despite being a phone dispatcher, Gerald wears a white uniform with a tie and an emblem on the shoulder, like a pilot. He wanted to be a pilot once, and that didn't happen. Sometimes things don’t happen the way you hoped they might.

Life Call, 1987

You may remember this scene from a famous 1987 commercial for the Life Call remote control emergency device. It was both a subject of parody and a point of widespread awareness for this type of safety-monitoring product.

In the next three decades, the number of Americans over 65-years-old will double. That's good news if you are the proprietor of any retirement homes, retirement villages, or retirement centers. But as many Americans opt to "age in place"—a popular term that might conjure the stagnation of a potted plant but is used in rebellion to the nursing-home-exile trope, describing continued independent living in one's own home—there will be an increasing need for affordable, large-scale systems to monitor for emergencies.

U.S. Bureau of the Census / U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The most common injury-related reason that elderly people are admitted to the hospital is that they fell over. It has been reported that almost one in one thousand of those falls results in death. Wearable devices and home-monitoring video cameras have become widely popular, but they have drawbacks in that they can be invasive or annoying. So an expert in radar imaging is on the case.

Dr. Moeness Amin is the director of the Center for Advanced Communications in the college of engineering at Villanova University. He was the lone academic representative at several NATO conferences on through-the-wall radar imaging. Amin’s research focuses on various applications for radar motion-detection technology, including search and rescue, military, and law enforcement such as robberies and hostage situations. Now it also includes using radar to identify when people fall in their homes.

For national defense and security, this technology is used when you are trying to find out whether there are people behind walls, inside enclosed structures, and to know how many are there. “We could detect a female versus male walking, a child versus a dog,” Amin tells me. “If somebody is shot, for example, the way he or she walks is different than a regular walk. This has been really of interest for the defense industry for many, many years.”

Radar monitoring in living spaces is appealing as an alternative to cameras, Amin says. “There’s a privacy issue if you put cameras in bedrooms or bathrooms. People don’t like that.”

Radar motion detection is also an alternative to wearable devices such as the Life Alert bracelet that, Amin says, people may forget or find uncomfortable. The device is meant to work through walls, just like spy equipment. If you put the unit anywhere in the house, it can detect that motion and classify it through different rooms. Though one living space could require multiple units, depending on the type of walls. For example, penetrating a bathroom wall of ceramic tiles could be challenging. If a person falls behind a metal file cabinet, they could be lost.

Spectrograms of typical motion patterns (Amin et al.)
Fall experiment setting

The radar device emits and receives frequencies that vary depending on the motion of a person’s body. At the most basic level, the radar will detect movement and classify the frequencies it receives in one of two ways: fall or no fall. That’s not always an easy distinction, though. Since a radar signal might look similar when a person is plopping down in a bed and when they are slowly falling forward as their walker slides out of reach, the challenge is in minimizing false alarms. “The last thing you want,” Amin says, “is to alert the first responder that somebody fell; they rush in, and the person is just sitting down drinking tea.”

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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