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Bringing Military Spirit and Innovation to Healthy Aging

Ann Oldenburg March 1, 2020
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The Army Distaff Foundation’s cutting-edge exoskeleton therapy is changing the future for those who have lived lives of service—and could change the future for us all.

After two strokes and repeated falls, Sybil Marks, 97, could barely walk. A year later, Marks could be seen standing tall as she strolled with her rollator down the halls of Knollwood, a military life plan community in northwest Washington, D.C.

Marks is the beneficiary of a new way of thinking about aging and wellness. The Army Distaff Foundation (ADF) is the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Knollwood—which is home to 300 people age 60 to 106 who served the country, including veterans of World War II, Korea and the Vietnam War, and their spouses. ADF is boldly leveraging new technologies, devices and therapies to provide better care, stronger health outcomes and improved quality of life.

That ‘Can-Do’ Attitude

Knollwood isn’t just a place to live and thrive. It’s a testing ground for ADF’s forward-thinking programs. The foundation’s military roots inform this approach, which is characterized by innovation, a determination to excel and a dedication to service. And while ADF is military-focused, the organization is positioning itself to have impact as a national leader in healthy aging more broadly.

“The military has long been the earlier adopter of new technologies by using the latest and greatest,” says Matthew Reilly, an Iraq War Veteran and Director of Technology and Innovation at ADF. The culture is one of acceptance, he says, noting that the core leadership of ADF and Knollwood is made up of veterans. “There is that military spirit, that ‘can-do’ attitude, that forward thinking that says, ‘Where are we now? Where do we want to be? Let’s map it out.’”  

TIME magazine featured Knollwood’s robotics on its cover in November 2019. And U.S. News & World Report gave Knollwood’s short- and long-term skilled nursing care and rehabilitation programs the highest possible rating of “High Performing,” a designation given to only 19% of skilled nursing communities, for 2019-2020.

“What’s key to understand is that innovation isn’t always technologically dependent. It’s a mindset, an approach,” says Reilly. “We’re actually engaging in the research that establishes best practices. People look to see what we’re doing.”

No Fear in Finding What Works

Nonprofits aren’t always willing or able to seek out and invest in new technology, but for ADF it’s a priority. This group thinks well beyond bingo as a way to engage its aging population. ADF has sought out key partnerships to institute new devices and therapies that can and will produce transformational outcomes—as was the case with Sybil Marks, who used cutting-edge exoskeleton therapy to regain her mobility. 

Reilly brought this powerful EksoGT™ device, originally used for those living with spinal cord injury, to Knollwood in a partnership with a company called Ekso Bionics. The battery-powered, adjustable suit with motorized “muscles” helps patients walk, re-learn proper gait and improve balance.

“While the industry is changing, a lot of leaders in the field are slow to adapt and adopt. We’re not just looking at off-the-shelf solutions, though many of them are fantastic,” says Reilly. “We’re looking at having a resident-driven program that we can engage in research to see what works, what is out there that’s working, and how we can utilize those technologies and incorporate them into our systems.”

Walking Now Is ‘Spectacular.’

Tanya Soriano, 83, who lives at Knollwood with her retired Army husband, saw the Ekso suit in use and wondered if it would work for her. “I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but they said it would help people get their balance and regain use of their legs,” she says.

She had been diagnosed with Lupus and suffered several episodes in which she lost control of her legs and collapsed. After the fourth time, she recalls, “I was completely paralyzed from my hip down on both legs.” Eventually, she was diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica or Devic’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the central nervous system.

Soriano asked to give the exoskeleton a try.

“Immediately it just straightened up my spine,” she says. Her weak, right leg was causing her to walk at an angle, which was giving her backaches. The exoskeleton suit forced her to stand straight. She says: “It’s like arms grasping you from the top of your bottom all the way down to your ankles. It was kind of a jolt.”

But, Soriano says, “It did feel good after I starting using it.” And now she says she’s able to walk a short distance. “I don’t know if I’ll fully recover with my right leg, but I walk correctly and don’t have the back pains.”

To walk, she says, is “spectacular.”

A Range of ADF Innovations

ADF has a growing set of data from several major wellness initiatives currently underway in addition to the exoskeleton suit, including fall prevention technology, cognitive therapy tools and Stevie, a robot tested at Knollwood in conjunction with its creators at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.

In 2018, ADF introduced BITS to Knollwood. This computer system replaces paper-and-pen methods used to assess and improve a broad range of cognitive, coordination, memory, visual, auditory, motor and other functions.

Reilly says Knollwood is the first facility in the United States to pilot test Aladin, a new technology from a company in France that provides progressive lighting and monitoring based on motion sensors. While fall prevention is the goal, Aladin also works as an alert system, notifying caregivers if a fall is detected to ensure immediate response.

As exhibited at Knollwood, ADF is determined to inspire and to lead the way in healthy aging. “The emphasis is on further refining care delivery systems, demonstrating efficacy and serving as a catalyst,” says Reilly, “not to just disrupt the industry in a positive way, but to get others to see the value of what we’re doing and engage in that themselves.”

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Ann Oldenburg

Ann Oldenburg, who started her career at The Washington Post and was a longtime culture writer at USA Today, is assistant director of the Journalism Program at Georgetown University. An advocate of lifelong learning, she is a member of the first cohort of Georgetown's new Aging & Health master’s program.

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