Weill Cornell center aims to help cognitively impaired seniors

Weill Cornell Medicine has been awarded a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research to create a center aimed at developing technology to help older adults who have cognitive impairments (CIs).

The five-year, $4.625 million multi-institutional grant will fund a research and development project, titled “Enhancing Neurocognitive Health, Abilities, Networks and Community Engagement (ENHANCE).” The new center – housed within Weill Cornell Medicine’s Center on Aging and Behavioral Research and led by Sara Czaja, recruited to Weill Cornell Medicine as a professor of gerontology in medicine – will research and develop technology solutions that will improve daily living for older adults with CIs, and advance the understanding of aging and cognitive disabilities.

Sara Czaja

The new center will be a collaboration with Florida State University and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Walter Boot, professor of cognitive psychology at Florida State, will co-lead the center.

“The new center will benefit society by investing in emerging technologies that support the medical and everyday lives of older adults, enhancing their independence and ability to live in their communities,” said Dr. Mark Lachs, co-chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Czaja is already working with researchers at the two universities on projects that focus on developing innovative strategies and interventions to keep older adults independent and engaged in society. The new grant will allow all three institutions to collect data from a larger and more diverse sample on the challenges older adults with cognitive impairments face in their communities and at home.

The center will also include colleagues from Cornell’s Ithaca campus and Cornell Tech, who will help develop the new technologies.

“We’re absolutely thrilled because this grant expands previous collaborations, establishes new collaborations with the Departments of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and establishes a new area of research for us,” Czaja said. “It is exciting that ENHANCE will also include researchers and students from three Cornell campuses.”

Cognitive impairments include memory loss, confusion, trouble learning new skills, and other areas that affect a person’s everyday life. The ENHANCE program targets adults 60 and older who have mild CIs, CIs due to stroke, and CIs due to traumatic brain injury.

“We’re looking at impairments that affect quality of life of those who experience them, as well as the family members who take care of these loved ones,” Czaja said. Because the prevalence of CIs increase with age, she said, “we know with the increase in the aging population that the number of people with cognitive impairments will also increase.”

The research will include caregivers to gain a more complete picture of the challenges experienced by older adults with CIs.

“We hope that by facilitating the ability of older adults with CIs to perform everyday and community-living activities, we will also reduce the care and support demands for family caregivers,” Czaja said.

Initial researcher from the new center will identify this population’s challenges, support needs and preferences. A follow-up research project will develop and test an adaptive software system that supports memory, knowledge of resources, performance of everyday skills and social engagement. The program will adapt to users’ varying needs.

A development project will then focus on creating tools around mobility – how older adults with CIs can better move around their communities. A second project will develop a technology tool that will support memory activities, such as prompting users to take medication or remember appointments or important events.

Melanie Padgett Powers is a freelance writer for Weill Cornell Medicine.

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