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Researchers at MU are 'Falling' for Improvements in Elderly Care

Stunt Actors Used to Portray Older Adults Falling

Jan. 31, 2008

Story Contact:  Emily Smith, (573) 882-3346,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Recent articles in the British Medical Journal and Science Daily are addressing the importance of recognizing falling as a major risk factor for aging adults. A team of nursing and engineering researchers at the University of Missouri agree, and since 2005 they have been developing technology that will improve care for the elderly. Their recent work includes observation of stunt actors “falling” to help assess the risk of debilitating falls and the measures used to detect and prevent these occurrences.

“Billions of dollars are spent in healthcare costs in regards to treatment of falls,” said Marilyn Rantz, professor at the MU Sinclair School of Nursing, “Our research is targeted to not only detecting falls, but also conducting fall-risk assessment.”

Information obtained from the research will help improve camera technology designed to capture movements and extract silhouettes while maintaining the privacy of people living on their own. The cameras will be placed in private homes and care facilities to identify when a fall occurs and alert help immediately. Sensors that detect movements through vibrations were also tested.

“Falls are a major focus of our research projects,” said Myra A. Aud, associate professor in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing. “We can use results from this research to identify changes in gait that may signal increased risk of falling. Health care providers can then suggest measures to prevent falls. We also can improve technology to detect when an older adult has fallen, and health care providers can respond rapidly and provide assistance.”

 To gather data on falling, the team faced the challenge of finding people who could accurately portray how an elderly person would fall. Asking older adults to take a few tumbles was not a safe option, so they found the next best thing, professional stunt actors or “fallers.”
 Various scenarios were developed for the actors to follow, and they also were given examples of traits displayed by senior citizens. As the actors performed, the nursing team evaluated the realism of each fall and the engineering team taped the process so they could enter the information into a specialized computer system.

“The reason it’s important that we have the stunt actors help us out is that we need to collect data of people falling down,” said Marge Skubic, electrical and computer engineering associate professor at the MU College of Engineering. “The falls need to be realistic in terms of the way older people really do fall. We then use this information to train our software programs so that we will be able to automatically recognize what these falls look like when they happen in real life.”

A $979,104 grant from the U.S. Administration on Aging allows the researchers to conduct studies like this one. Specifically the MU nursing researchers will use these advancements to enhance “aging-in-place” at TigerPlace in Columbia, Mo.

"Aging-in-Place" is a model that allows the elderly to receive health care in their preferred place of living. As their care needs increase, residents contract for more care in the same setting, eliminating the need for a move to a more restrictive living environment such as a nursing home. TigerPlace is a unique independent living, apartment-style eldercare facility designed by the Sinclair School of Nursing.

Currently several of the residents at TigerPlace have sensors installed in their apartments which monitor movement. These "smart home" technologies are being developed to enhance residents' safety and monitor health conditions. The continuous assessment of physical function is a key indicator of initial decline in health. Identifying and assessing problems when they begin can provide a window of opportunity for interventions that will alleviate the problem areas before they become catastrophic.