Smart home, better health

Amazon, Alexa, smart home, devices, assistive technology, age in place, medication reminders, social isolation, older adults, aging

From AHS Magazine,* Summer 2018

Smart home devices can make life easier around the house, but what if they could also improve one’s health?  BHIS research assistant professor, Jessie Chin, is collaborating on a project with Kelly Quinn in the UIC College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that examines the use of smart home devices for health promotion among older adults.

Smart home devices, such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, allow users to speak to the device to request information, such as the news and weather, or give commands, such as playing music.

“People tend to use these devices as a personal assistant to manage their life, but the functions could help promote their lifestyle for better health, ” said Chin, who’s conducted interdisciplinary research in cognitive science, human-computer interaction and human factors, with a focus on human-information interaction across the lifespan.

“People could add reminders to serve as memory aids — they could tell the devices where they stored their keys and ask them later, or set a reminder to take medications with the time and date, ”  she said.

The devices can also be utilized to manage lifestyle.  “Older adults tend to have sedentary behavior, so they could set reminders to take a walk regularly, for example.”

Quinn, who focuses her research on the social implications of technology use, plans to examine how the devices could be used to enhance social well-being and reduce loneliness among older adults.

“Social connection is really important at older ages,” Quinn said.  “We know that when older adults are disconnected and lonely, there is a greater incidence of cognitive decline, depression and early mortality.

“There are some interesting things that happen when we age — we retire and lose social connections, we lose spouses and friends who have died.  There’s mobility limitations and higher incidences of chronic disease.  All of these things are connected to the decline in the ability to connect with people.”

Smart home devices could help improve quality of life, Quinn said.

*For Alumni & Friends of the College of Applied Health Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago

The Technical Side of Green


There probably isn’t a person big or small that doesn’t like the view of a lush countryside, bubbling brook, or vibrancy of the Fall colors in the Midwest to brighten his or her day. “Natural elements grab and hold our attention in effortless ways, even in urban settings,” and this has a profound beneficial effect on us according to research by Dr. William Sullivan, Professor and Head of the Department of Landscape Architecture at University of Illinois.  In his book chapter* entitled, “In Search of a Clear Head,” Dr. Sullivan shares research supporting the premise that:

It is clear that being in or looking onto a green space can improve people’s ability to focus their attention. But is the effect of green space on attention useful to a variety of people under a variety of circumstances? The evidence shows that a wide range of people benefit from exposure to green spaces. Studies have demonstrated links between green spaces and higher performance on attentional tasks in public housing residents, AIDS caregivers, cancer patients, college students, prairie restoration volunteers, and employees of large organizations.

Green spaces help us to recover from mental fatigue, help us make better decisions, and behave with less irritability. Simply put for our homes, work, schools, and communities:

               We need nature at every doorstep!

Further, the more senses that are engaged, generally the more stress reduction occurs as well. In one study, students looking out a classroom window onto a natural space had the power to improve test accuracy TENFOLD! So why are we sending students into windowless classrooms? This is something important to think about as we craft study and workspaces at home and in our communities.

So you might ask if these benefits would include an adult playing golf? A child engaged in athletic team sports? “Yes” for the golf although probably more from the exercise than the putting “greens,” and “No” for outdoor sports. Although the playing field may be a green space and it is usually good to be outdoors, the benefits are better during unstructured activities. Better examples would include walking in display gardens (!), growing a few vegetables, viewing natural waterways, and even observing animals in their native habitats. Taking a walk outside is generally a good idea for many reasons yet in another study, only students who walked in an arboretum showed statistically better test scores than ones who walked in the downtown area of their college town.**

To boost the restorative benefits of everyday contact with gardens and green spaces, view and actively engage in those spaces around you. Such is the heart of the Master Gardener program at Cooperative Extension Offices throughout the United States!  Trained volunteers engage the public in educational, exploratory, and experiential gardening activities:  the fun and heart of what we do as Master Gardeners for persons young and old. A little “dose of nature” is a great low-tech idea for all of us.

Julie, O.T.

Advanced Master Gardener

*Fostering Reasonableness: Supportive Environments for Bringing Out Our Best; Edited by Rachel Kaplan and Avik Basu.

**Based upon William Sullivan’s lecture entitled “Attention Restoration” presented at Gardens that Heal: A Prescription for Wellness; Chicago Botanical Garden, 5.10.17.

brook, bubbling, Fall, Midwest, Indiana, Master Gardener, photo, yellow, orange, green, rocks, river, stream, Pufferbelly, Trail, Path



Gardens can help us heal

Chicago Botanical Garden, occupational therapist, Gardens that Heal, Prescription for Wellness, Healthcare, Design, Landscape Architecture, hospitals, nursing homes, design

This past Spring I had the opportunity to attend the opening day of the eight-day Healthcare Garden Design Certificate of Merit Program at the exquisite Chicago Botanic Garden. Have you seen the garden?  For me, it was just what the Doctor ordered!

Our day began with total immersion in the world of landscape architecture and garden design in healthcare settings. Most of the presentations focused on hospital environments designed to provide solace for patients, their families, and staff.  The concept of healing gardens began in 1984 with the perspective that views to nature can have a positive influence on health outcomes and even have the potential to reduce medical mistakes from stressed-out caregivers.

I found the pictures of several children’s gardens to be most enchanting and creative. These fantasy retreats with both semi-private and private spaces included stepping stones, water features, telescopes, cubby-hole windows, hidden stone creatures (that staff often moved around periodically for fun!), a visitor’s log book, and figure 8 walking paths.  Where the services of occupational, recreational, or horticultural therapists were available, programs included “enabling” garden experiences with hands-on activities.  Examples from senior and nursing centers were also especially meaningful to me from my past work as an occupational therapist.

Perhaps we would agree as Master Gardeners that gardens, green spaces, and plants are almost always a good idea for all kinds of indoor and outdoor living spaces. Barriers often include the costs of installation and maintenance in addition to a lack of space.  Projects require answers to questions from:  Who will do the technical work of planning the design? to What volunteers will pull weeds for the next 10 years?  And what if the spaces change due to facility expansion, staffing changes, or they simply don’t work over time for the clients who frequent the area?  I realized how much common sense factors into the creation of a successful healthcare design project when viewing slides of gardens designed by an “artist” vs a “landscape architect” (the latter working with the staff of a particular facility).  The difference was striking:  a series of concrete settees along an angular path probably seemed beautiful to the artist and won accolades from hospital administrators.  But the space was cold, uninviting and difficult to navigate whether using mobility devices or simply trying to get from one part of the courtyard to the other.  Never minimize the value of a few folks walking through a design together and including potential users of the space.

Claire Cooper Marcus of summed up the dilemma of poorly designed and maintained gardens in healthcare quite succinctly in the following statement:

“If they can’t keep the plants alive, how will they care for me?”

A better design philosophy came from Horticulture Therapist Teresia Hazen and Landscape Architect Brian Bainnson. The space should express the desire to:

“Sit. Stay.  Heal!”

Even local and national parks have given consideration to human elements in the design of public spaces in a movement called “Park Prescription.” The needs for safety, social interaction, comfortable walking, and even privacy are important for persons of all ages.  Specific design features can include:  resting places, landmarks, shade, protection from excess heat or cold, interesting visuals, and “no trash.”  The bottom line for public and healthcare garden spaces is to meet the needs of the persons of all ages and abilities with their constituents for whom it was designed with an eye on the future and measure of flexibility too.  The good news is that there’s research to support these efforts and funding available too if we but dig a little (pun intended) for it, persisting beyond the barriers.  We must continue what we do best lest we fall into what Richard Boo calls “Nature Deficit Disorder.”  No one wants that, right?  Such is the power of a little garden fix!

Julie, O.T.