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ATU598 – Healthy Home Lab with Paulina Villacreces and Dr. John Pearlman of the University of Pittsburg

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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.
Special Guests:
Paulina Villacreces MS – Assistant Professor Rehab Science and Technology Department at the University of Pittsburg and Director of Product Development for the Healthy Home Laboratory
Dr. Jon Pearlman – Chair of Department of Rehab Science and Technology at University of Pittsburg and Technical Director for the Healthy Home Laboratory
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—– Transcript Starts Here —–
Paulina Villacreces:

Hi, this is Paulina Villacreces and I’m assistant professor at the Rehab Science and Technology Department at the University of Pittsburgh, and Director of Product Development for the Healthy Home Laboratory.

John Pearlman:

And my name is John Pearlman, I am the chair of the Department of Rehab Science and Technology and the technical director of Pitts Healthy Home Lab. And this is Your Assistive Technology Update.

Josh Anderson:

Hello and welcome to Your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology, designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host, Josh Anderson with the In Data Project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 598 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on November 11th, 2022.

On today’s show, we are super excited to have Paulina Villacreces and John Pearlman on. They are out of the University of Pittsburgh and are here to talk about the Healthy Home Laboratory and all the really cool stuff that they’re doing there. We want to take a moment to wish all of our veterans a very Happy Veterans Day. None of us would have any of the things we have without your service, your sacrifice, and the amazing things that you’ve been able to do for this country. So just know that we should probably say it more than once a year, but Happy Veterans Day to all of our veterans, and thank you so much for your service and for your sacrifice, for all you’ve done for us all around the world.

Also, don’t forget if you got a question or comment, someone we should interview or a topic you’d love to discuss or hear on here, reach out to us. Send us an email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org. Call our listener line at (317) 721-7124, or hit us up on Twitter @indataproject. But for now, let’s go ahead and get on with the show.

Listeners, let’s not lie. Over the course of the last few years, almost all of us have ended up spending a lot more time in our homes. For individuals who are aging or have disabilities, staying in their home is a great way to stay independent, but age related disabilities and other factors can compromise the safety and security that we all enjoy in our homes. Well, our guests today are Paulina Villacreces and John Pearlman from the University of Pittsburgh, and they’re here to tell us about the Healthy Home Laboratory and how it can assist folks with aging in place and staying safe while doing so. Paulina, John, welcome to the show.

John Pearlman:

Thanks, Josh. Happy to be part of the podcast.

Josh Anderson:

Yeah, and I am really excited to get into talking about the Healthy Home Laboratory and all the cool stuff that y’all do. But first, can you start us off by telling our listeners a little bit about yourselves and your backgrounds?

John Pearlman:

Sure, I’ll start. My name is John Pearlman, I am a engineer by training and have been at the University of Pittsburgh now for… Closing in on 20 years, both doing my PhD and then serving as faculty. And my background, I grew up with my stepfather, has a spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair for his day-to-day mobility. And I grew up really learning and developing technology to support him to be safe and independent, and that’s what I’ve translated into my career and excited to be part of the Healthy Home Lab team, which is just a wonderful place for us to come together from the university as well as with partners in the community, to address really tangible challenges with scalable and practical solutions to help people age safely and independently in their homes.

Josh Anderson:

Awesome. And Paulina, what about you?

Paulina Villacreces:

Yes, so my background is in industrial design and ergonomics, and my work has focused on designing and developing assistive technology with the aim of providing innovative solutions to obtain optimal human environment and interactions that promote human health and wellbeing. And I’m new to the Healthy Home Laboratory, I joined about a year ago. And prior to joining the Healthy Home Laboratory, I was working at [inaudible 00:04:47] where we specialized in the design and development of assistive technology for people with disabilities in less resource settings in Ecuador.

Josh Anderson:

Awesome. And I could probably just go into talking about your background for the rest of the show and probably really enjoy hearing about that, but that’s not why we’re here. So a question just to both of you, we’ve talked about it a little bit and you’ve mentioned it, but what is the Healthy Home Laboratory?

John Pearlman:

Thanks Josh. I’ll start, just provide some background to the project and the house itself. So as a group in my department, we operate at this intersection between rehab and technology. We run a clinical outpatient clinic for assistive technology here in the Pittsburgh area in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. And what we as a team in the department recognize is there’s a shift into needing more technology, supportive technology and better technology in the home. And as we recognize that care needs to be provided in the home and better technologies needed to be provided in the home, we also recognize that across the university and in the community, there’s also many different groups that are working on this. And so the Healthy Home Lab is a community based laboratory in a hundred year old home that the university invested in. And the goal of that lab is to bring people together from the community and the university to tackle these major problems and come up with scalable solutions.

And so we have a really wide range of groups up to about 50 people now engaged. They cross over from the engineering disciplines, the environmental health disciplines, the clinical service disciplines of occupational physical therapy, nursing, community paramedics and MDs, physiatrists and other clinicians and health policy experts, into one really physical place focused on a critical topic for our region. And that sort of is the background of Healthy Home.

We’ve only really launched it in the last couple of months in terms of having the physical site, but we’ve been working on it for over a year and a half. And one of the key goals that I had as an engineer is to bring in industrial designers because I know that as a engineering discipline, we understand how to build and the technical aspects and we’re very deductive in terms of our approach to designing things. And the industrial designers know how to design really usable, beautiful technologies that we know are absent right now in the product lineup to support people to age with page, safely and independently in the home. And so one of our most important hires into the team has been Paulina, to help support and drive our product roadmap.

Paulina Villacreces:

This lab is very important to us in the sense that it’s really a living laboratory for real world interventions and best practices on how to adapt and equip a home to support individuals as they age in place and also as their needs and abilities change at various stages of their life. And so we are really excited to be part of this laboratory and start working to help older adults be able to age in place safely and independently.

Josh Anderson:

Excellent. And as you talk about the planning and everything else, and I know you said you’ve just kind of had the physical house, the physical space for a little bit of time. Tell me a little bit about the house and maybe what went into the procurement of it and maybe some challenges that you weren’t expecting when you got into that part of executing the program.

John Pearlman:

Sure, I’ll start here. We’ve been looking for a house for this full year and a half, almost two years that we’ve been setting this project up. And the housing stock in Pittsburgh and this region in general is very old, it’s not age friendly. And we looked for months and months to try to identify a space that would not only serve as an example of a traditional house, but give us the flexibility to do renovations. And so fortunately, after working closely with the facilities and real estate team at Pitt, we identified this house that’s right near campus. It’s 100 years old, it architecturally is beautiful inside. It was purchased by the university from a family that had lived there, had several generations. And when we walked in initially when they still owned the house, there was a queen size bed in the dining room, and that sent a message to all of us that it was really the perfect house, because that bed in the dining room was an example of one of the major challenges, which is that houses don’t typically have accessible environments, accessible bedrooms on the main floor.

And it sent this message that this type of environment is exactly, that’s the challenge we wanted to be able to solve which is, how does somebody, a family that’s got an older generation wanting to stay in their house who has a disability, how do we provide that supportive environment in their home? So originally the university bought it in April and we went through a few months actually of remediation of issues in the house, including some mold, some asbestos, some lead-based paint, other structural challenges that are really commonplace in older homes. And so it took us several months actually to get access to it, but it is a traditional Pittsburgh, 100 year old home that has knob and tube wiring, had gaslight plumbing throughout the house and has many generations of history living there. And we’re in close contact with the family who we bought it from, who is incredibly supportive of our efforts and really part of the story of what we’re trying to accomplish.

And I’ll hand it off to Paulina to talk about the characteristics of the house in terms of the architectural detail and the challenges that poses for us to design products that fit within that architectural beauty.

Paulina Villacreces:

Yeah, thanks John. Just to add, as John mentioned, this house really gives us access firsthand to all the challenges and barriers that older adults and people with disabilities have to face when they’re aging and losing perhaps mobility or have some sort of condition that limits their ability to perform activities of daily living. And so this house, as John mentioned, for example, has very steep and narrow entry steps and also stairways, the bedrooms, as John mentioned, they’re located on the second floor as well as the full bathrooms, they’re all on the second floor. And this house really lacks any type of accessibility features. Additionally, these older homes usually expose individuals to pollutants and chemicals or different hazards due to the antiquated-like building methods, creating a risk for poor health outcomes. And they do require a considerable number of modifications to accommodate aging and disability needs.

So for example, we are looking into building and designing a bathroom on the first floor so that it is accessible to users within the first floor. We are also working on identifying different gaps in the market for different technologies for stair climbing, for example. And so given that the house has these very steep entry stairs and also stairs in the inside, we are working on different devices that could help with stair climbing in the home. And so we identify that the gaps in the market also offer opportunities for design improvement for what is currently available. And so, for example, as I mentioned, there’s a gap in the market for devices used for stair climbing. There aren’t many options besides chair lifts, for example. And these really can limit the mobility of older adults and people with disabilities because they’re no longer able to climb stairs.

And so our goal is really to provide a wide range of climbing options that help older adults and people with disabilities at different stages of their lives. So starting with devices that provide perhaps minimal support and devices that provide maximum support, while still promoting their skills, abilities and mobility. Because we do believe that with the appropriate support, older adults can be able to climb stairs on their own. And in this way we can promote their mobility and ability to climb stairs and allow them to remain independent in this way. So there are many challenges that the home poses and it’s really understanding how to approach these challenges in the best way so that we support older adults and people with disabilities in the best way possible.

Josh Anderson:

Oh, that’s awesome. And yeah, I know a lot of the older homes, and I’ve been to Pittsburgh a couple of times and I know the first time I was amazed, nobody tells you how pretty it is with all the rivers and everything, but yes, I know much like when you get into downtown Indianapolis, a lot of the homes have been there for a long time. So you mentioned a lot of the issues of course with just older building materials and things, but also no one ever thought to put the bedroom and the bathroom on the first floor. That was just kind of the thing they didn’t do. And man, that does cause a challenge, and that’s great that you’re thinking of ways that the folks that want to stay in their home still, especially if they’ve owned it for a long time and don’t want to have to buy something else or move into assisted living, it’s definitely a great way to be able to help them.

In looking through your website and doing a little bit of research for today, I found that you guys have some different kind of services and stuff and Paulina, you kind of led into this. Can you tell us about what the technology testing and evaluation program, what does that look like?

John Pearlman:

I can cover that topic.

Josh Anderson:

Okay.

John Pearlman:

So we, as a group, have been working on product standards and product evaluation for many years in our department. And the challenges of making sure a consumer has access to a reliable product is something that’s often difficult for a consumer to figure that out, because what comes from many companies is more marketing strategies. And for these types of assistive technologies, we often don’t see the consumer as the payer. And so when we’re both the payer and the consumer, we have a lot of control over the technologies and we can pick and choose the best ones for us. But for assistive technologies and medical devices, we know the payer is often not the consumer, so don’t have a lot of leverage to drive product selection. And so the Healthy Home Evaluation team is focused on doing the types of engineering evaluation to make sure these products are safe.

We obviously apply those to any products that Paulina, for instance, is designing. But we also serve as a testbed for companies who want to have an independent evaluation of a product. I have a team of engineers that work on the Healthy Home, that could be the type of technical evaluation and that’s important to make sure something doesn’t break or grab bar doesn’t rip out of a wall. And then there’s another really important aspect, which is the usability of the product. And I’ll hand it off to Paulina to talk about the importance and how we measure usability of products as an aspect of our evaluation step in the Healthy Home.

Paulina Villacreces:

Sure, thanks John. And so just to start off, I think it’s important to mention some of the limitations of the existing technology, and I’ll just mention a few. And that is that most of the products that are designed, are not designed thinking about the end users or the interaction between the user, the environment, or multiple environments and the devices. Most of the products available in the market also have a very clinical look and feel that is not really user-friendly and does not seamlessly blend into the home, which leads to users not wanting to use these devices as they disrupt their beautiful homes. These devices are usually designed for a single use, that helps with a single need at a point in time and don’t really provide an integrated solution that evolves with older adults and their needs, and as their needs and abilities change.

And so our goal from a usability standpoint is to really look at the user from a human centered design perspective to really understand their skills, their abilities, their needs, their challenges, their environment, and how to best support them so that they’re able to remain independent. And so this includes, as John mentioned before, looking at problems and challenges from different perspectives. So from the occupational therapists, physical therapists lenses, assisted technology specialists, designers, engineers, and many other specialties, and really a multidisciplinary team of experts to get a better understanding of how to best approach a problem and how to best provide a solution. With that, we’re also looking into designing aesthetically pleasing devices that integrate into the home that are not only user friendly, but also highly functional and ergonomic while still being beautiful to integrate into the home. And we’re also focusing on designing versatile and dynamic systems as opposed to single devices, and these systems that are universal and that can really adapt to the different needs and abilities of users at various stages of their life.

Josh Anderson:

Awesome. Paulina, are you able to tell us about any of those systems that you’re currently working on or maybe have worked on?

Paulina Villacreces:

Yeah, sure. Yes. For example, right now we’ve designed this technology that we call Mobius which, at first glance, it looks and it’s installed just like chair rail molding around the home. But beneath this decorative molding is a universal rail system where you can attach different devices. And so, for example, grab bars in the bathroom or handrails in hallways, stairs assist devices on stairs, and many others that can solve a wide range of mobility and accessibility needs around the home. And these devices can be easily attached, moved and repositioned without the need of a constructor or costly modifications. If a device is no longer needed, it can just be… The rail can be concealed with this decorative molding cover and just blend into the home beautifully. So really thinking about designing systems that can be adapted as needs change throughout time and at different stages for older adults and people with disabilities.

Josh Anderson:

Oh, that’s great because I know so many things, especially age related or degenerative, so where I might just need some support, maybe some help kind of getting say up the stairs now, I may need a chairlift or something of that sort later, but I want to use the skills that I still have. So that’s great that you’re thinking that way and not having to have another home modification evaluation and a contractor, get quotes, get all those kind of things, but kind of do it one time and then change out the pieces and parts. Especially, it’s not always just one person living in the house. So that’s really great and I love that you’re actually taking into account the aesthetics.

And John, I don’t remember if you or Paulina brought this up, but yes, an assistive technology, a lot of times it does kind of just, hey, let’s meet this need, let’s kind of do this and it’ll look like it looks, and in the home that doesn’t always work. So I like that you’re working that right into the chair rail and really making it kind of fit into the home and not be the first giant thing you notice when you walk in.

John Pearlman:

Yeah. I’ll just add Josh that… Sorry Paulina. Just that we’re reminded of this all the time when we go into the Healthy Home because it has chair rails, again, built 100 years ago in the Rust Belt, where people took craftsmanship very seriously. And so we have these beautiful 8 to 10 inch architectural molding throughout this house and there’s so much design that has really taken shortcuts for this type of technology, the existing technology for railings and chairlifts and grab bars that it does stick out a sore thumb in an environment like this. And so we’re reminded about the beauty and the craftsmanship and the architectural detail in these old homes, and we know that people that cherish that, that love these homes that live in the homes for multiple generations want to keep that look. And poorly designed products are often rejected, people don’t want them in the house because of visually what it does to the house. So it’s a major theme that Paulina really drives in terms of the look and feel of all the products we’re developing.

Josh Anderson:

Yeah, and you brought up those great points. And there also is that time that maybe you want to hand it down to a family member or sell it, just because Pittsburgh gets winter just like Indiana does. Maybe someday you’re tired of those winter and want to move somewhere warmer. So it’s great if you don’t have to spend the money to rip a bunch of stuff out that may be needed in the future. You can still have it aesthetically pleasing and actually have it look good for the people that it’s handed down to, and still be available as they age and need those tools as well.

Paulina Villacreces:

Yeah, exactly. That’s one of our goals, because we were also thinking of different places like continuing care in retirement communities, and that sort of places where they provide care also to older adults and people with disabilities. And so how they can easily just change different devices and then also how to translate that, do it also in the home and just have all these structures and buildings with these simple chair rail molding that allows for different changes and adaptations and considers different abilities and skills of different people and users and how they interact with spaces, with the environment and with the different devices.

Josh Anderson:

John, Paulina, if our listeners want to find out more about you, about all the work, great work that you all are doing at Pitter about the Healthy Home Laboratory, what’s the best ways for them to do that?

Paulina Villacreces:

Yeah, so our website is healthyhomelaboratory.pit.edu and anyone can contact us through our email, which is healthyhomelab@pit.edu.

Josh Anderson:

Excellent. We will put all that information in the show notes and I feel like I could sit here and talk all day about the amazing stuff you both are doing, but I know we’re getting close to out of time, so I do want to take the time definitely to thank you for coming on and telling us about this and it sounds like it’s something where we’ll have to have you back on, maybe some time in the future just to hear about all the great things that you’re developing.

Paulina Villacreces:

Yeah. Thank you so much for having us today. This was a great time and interview.

John Pearlman:

Yeah, thanks Josh. It was really our pleasure and we’re excited to build partnerships and continue to grow the network that the Healthy Home Lab has already started to develop.

Josh Anderson:

Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on an assistive technology update? If so, call our listener line at (317) 721-7124. Send us an email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org or shoot us a note on Twitter @indataproject. Our captions and transcripts for the show are sponsored by the Indiana Telephone Relay Access Corporation or InTRAC. You can find out more about InTRAC at relayindiana.com. A special thanks to Nicole Prieto for scheduling our amazing guests and making a mess of my schedule. Today’s show was produced, produced, edited, hosted, and fraught over by yours truly. The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the In Data Project, Easterseals Crossroads, our supporting partners or this host. This was your assistive technology update, and I’m Josh Anderson with the In Data Project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. We look forward to seeing you next time. Bye-bye.

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