It is estimated that by 2030 the number of elderly Americans will have more than doubled. Current care facilities will be overwhelmed by more than 70 million people who require expensive care and medical attention. Although technological wizards assure us that robots will be looking after the older citizens in the near future, this still belongs to the realm of science fiction. But not so with our beloved dogs. Very soon they will be better equipped to help their elderly owners.
It is a known fact that dogs and other companion animals have a positive effect on both the health and quality of life of the elderly. Senior citizens with dogs visit the doctor less and enjoy more human interaction. Even those who suffer from schizophrenia are better able to take care of themselves after animal assisted therapy.
Researchers at Newcastle University in the UK think they can learn a lot about the well being of elderly owners by tracking the movements of their pooches. They tested this by having a diverse group of dogs wear a high-tech collar containing accelerometers. The researchers then installed video systems in the homes of the owners so they could match the behaviors to the information stored in the special collars worn by the dogs.
After a month they identified 17 distinct dog activities such as barking, chewing, drinking, lying, shivering and sniffing.
The study was set up to find a better way to care for dogs that have to be alone for many hours while the owners are at work. Now the researchers think that the information acquired through this study can be used as an early warning sign for elderly who are struggling to cope.
According to Nils Hammerla, a behavior managing expert and one of the authors of the paper: “A dog’s physical and emotional dependence on their owner means that their well being is likely [to] reflect that of their owner and any changes such as the dog being walked less often, perhaps not being fed regularly, or simply demonstrating ‘unhappy’ behavior could be an early indicator for families that an older relative needs help.”
This system could also be used to include a distress signal in case of emergencies or to indicate the death of the owner. According to Jason Bittel an accelerometer collar is a simple and effective piece of technology. The advantage for the elderly is that they don’t have to learn how to use some complicated device. All they have to do is continue loving their best friend.