Home for Seniors Trades Privacy for Security At the Oatfield Estates assisted-living facility in Oregon, residents are tracked around the clock through a system of badges and sensors. It may sound creepy, but for residents with Alzheimer's or dementia, it allows them the freedom to roam while giving staff and loved ones the ability to check in at any time.
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Home for Seniors Trades Privacy for Security

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Home for Seniors Trades Privacy for Security

Home for Seniors Trades Privacy for Security

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From NPR News, it's MORNING EDITION. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

In Your Health today, we'll learn more about electronic surveillance. You might not want to live in a place where every move you make is monitored and recorded. But the owners of one such facility say surveillance devices let their residents live with more independence. The residents, many of them, have Alzheimer's or physical disabilities. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.


Lydia Lundberg has flown to a conference in Washington, D.C. She pulls out her oversized laptop to show off some technology she has been working on for the past five years.

Ms. LYDIA LUNDBERG (Co-Owner Oatfield Estates): And actually, I can go to a live view and it shows that he is in bed.

SHAPIRO: She is talking about Ray Croft. He is a resident in the assisted living facility that Lundberg owns back in Oregon. And now, with her computer three time zones away, Lundberg can check where Ray is and what he is doing at this exact moment.

Ms. LUNDBERG: The icon shows that he is snoozing away, and he has been in his room for 12 hours.

SHAPIRO: You say live. We don't see a picture of him?

Ms. LUNDBERG: No. We don't see pictures. We don't use any video cameras.

SHAPIRO: There is a device hooked to Ray's bed and it sends data readings to the computer. A graph pops up with a blue line going up and down, up and down.

Ms. LUNDBERG: Basically, this is his breath what you're looking at. You see a chart that fluctuates a pound.

SHAPIRO: She can even tell if Ray is breathing out or breathing in.

Ms. LUNDBERG: Hi, Ray.

SHAPIRO: It's a recent morning in Milwaukee, Oregon, and Lydia Lundberg is back at Oatfield Estates. Ray Croft has zipped outside in his motorized wheelchair. He needs it because his left leg has been amputated, the result of diabetes. He has come out on the patio for a smoke.

You got your pipe this morning?

Mr. RAY CROFT: There's nothing more relaxing than a good pipe and tobacco.

SHAPIRO: But a worried look crosses Lundberg's face.

Ms. LUNDBERG: Where is your badge? They forgot to put it on you today?

Mr. CROFT: Yes, they did, and that's a big no, no.

SHAPIRO: Ray is not wearing something that is almost always clipped to his shirt, a black badge. It's a small, triangular pendant. It signals the dozens of infrared and radiofrequency sensors inside and outside and records where he is and where he has been; when he is eating, when he is in the bathroom; even who he is hanging out with, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's a bit chilly this morning, but Ray has come out in just his white T-shirt.

Ms. RUTH YAWS(ph): What are you doing out here without your shirt on?

SHAPIRO: An aid, Ruth Yaws has come bounding down the stairs holding Ray's long sleeve shirt and his badge. By now, you might be thinking, all this monitoring is a little creepy. So this is probably the time to say Oatfield Estates is a very nice assisted living facility where Ray Croft just got his daily breakfast in bed, pancakes the way he likes them. And here, from his group house on top of the hill, there is a stunning panorama. Off in the distance, snow capped Mount Hood, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens.

Ms. YAWS: All right, Mr. Croft.

Mr. CROFT: There is no hurry, but you mind bringing my cell phone. I forgot it.

Ms. YAWS: Okay.

Mr. CROFT: Okay.

SHAPIRO: Maybe Oatfield Estates is nice because the owners, Lydia Lundberg and her husband Bill Reed, built a place where they would want to live. They call it a summer camp for old people.

But Lundberg says the thing that really makes this place work is all the monitoring technology.

Ms. LUNDBERG: People don't argue with data. They believe it, because data doesn't have an agenda. Data is not trying to make somebody look better or worse.

SHAPIRO: Lundberg can tell if an aide takes too long to respond when a resident pushes a call bell or if a resident is losing too much weight. Most of all, co-owner Bill Reed says, the data gives residents freedom that they wouldn't have anywhere else.

Mr. BILL REED (Co-owner, Oatfield Estates): Well, they would probably be in locked facilities. They would be the ones that were at the doors trying to get out or escaping.

SHAPIRO: About two-thirds of residents have some dementia or Alzheimer's. Here they live with everyone else. They're free to roam inside and out. Reed is watching some of them plant the garden.

Mr. REED: These are big, strong, still fairly full of energy people, so they would be trying to escape away from the facility. So you would build big fences for them. And then they would be hard to contend, so you'd give them drugs to slow down their anxiety or their anger.

SHAPIRO: Because people are monitored, there are no fences here.

Ms. MELISSA RICHMOND(ph) (Gardener): All right, Dorothy. Are you ready to go plant some tomatoes?

Ms. DOROTHY KIMMEL (Resident): Uh huh.

SHAPIRO: Melissa Richmond is the gardener. She gets the residents to help her. Like Dorothy Kimmel(ph).

Ms. RICHMOND: So, Dorothy, do you think it's too early to plant tomatoes?

Ms. KIMMEL: Uh, I can't even think of what month it is.

SHAPIRO: An elderly man with a shovel digs holes in the ground. Dorothy takes the young plants from plastic containers.

Ms. KIMMEL: If I gently pull?

Ms. RICHMOND: Yeah. Usually if you do a little squeeze on it.

Ms. KIMMEL: I'm squeezing on it, yeah. Um-hmm.

Ms. RICHMOND: There. Pull it out a little.

SHAPIRO: Then Dorothy, in a pink sweater, leans down and carefully places each green plant into a newly dug hole.

Ms. RICHMOND: Okay. Let's get a little fertilizer in there.

Ms. MARSHA RIEDEL(ph) (Daughter of Dorothy Kimmel): I type in my user ID and my password.

SHAPIRO: Marsha Riedel is Dorothy Kimmel's daughter. She's in her office cubicle, hundreds of miles away in Tucson, Arizona. With just a few clicks of her computer, she can read reports about what her mother does each day.

Ms. RIEDEL: Planting tomatoes. Let's see if I can click on planting tomatoes. It gives me more information. It says they started at 3:30 and ended at 5:00. It was outside in the main garden, and it tells who the employees were there - Melissa and Nancy were there.

SHAPIRO: It's hard to be a caregiver from far away. Before, when Riedel called her mom on the phone, the woman couldn't always remember what she'd done that day. Now Riedel phones and checks on the computer a few times a week.

Ms. RIEDEL: I can track her weight. I can tell how much time she's spent in bed. I can tell how restless she was. There's a graph that keeps track of that.

SHAPIRO: She can even tell where her mother is right now.

Ms. RIEDEL: She is in the kitchen now, in the eating area, with - one, two, three, four - five other people. She's been in the kitchen for two minutes and 42 seconds.

SHAPIRO: With the collected data, Marsha Riedel says she's more involved in her mother's care now. The owners of Oatfield Estates say that's the point: to use data to bring families closer together.

It doesn't always work that way.

Ms. KELLY NICKERSON(ph) (Oatfield Estates Employee): Okay Grandpa Ray. Are you ready?

SHAPIRO: In the parking lot at Oatfield Estates, Ray Croft(ph) is in a race against Jacob Nickerson(ph).

Mr. JACOB NICKERSON: Yeah. Come on, Mom.

Ms. NICKERSON: Let's go. Go Jake, go! Go Jake, go!

SHAPIRO: Jacob is three. He's on his new red tricycle. Ray is in his red, motorized wheelchair.

Ms. NICKERSON: Go Jacob, go!

Mr. NICKERSON: I'm going, I'm going, I'm going, I'm going! We made it!

Ms. NICKERSON: You both won! Yea, high five! High five Grandpa Ray!

SHAPIRO: Jacob's mom, Kelly, works here, and they live in one of the large group homes. Of all the residents here, Ray is the one Jacob calls Grandpa.

Mr. RAY CROFT (Resident): He beat me twice!

SHAPIRO: After the race, Ray says his monitoring badge is a good thing.

Mr. CROFT: The Big Brother thing doesn't bother me, pretty much at all. An intelligent person - half-way intelligent - is going to appreciate the fact that people can be monitored for their own good and their own safety if somebody falls out of bed or if you fall roaming around here.

SHAPIRO: But Ray's had problems with the monitoring devices, or at least the way one of his daughters used the information. He's a diabetic, and she saw his weight zoom up. He says his daughter started nagging him.

Mr. CROFT: She was really just giving me a hard time over her expectations for my diet, for my weight, for my exercise. Just about my whole life here.

SHAPIRO: Fed up, Ray revoked permission for her to see any data on him. That fight was a couple years ago. Ray says he hasn't spoken to his daughter since.

He says they'd been estranged before. Still, he misses her. Most of all, he thanks her for finding this place for him. He says he couldn't live anywhere better, and that the information that's gathered on him is, for the most part, used to help him.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Photos from Oatfield Estates and other Your Health stories are at npr.org/yourhealth.

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