Teen Invents Sensor for Alzheimer's Patients to Help His Beloved Grandpa

To protect his grandfather, Kenneth Shinozuka, 16, created a motion sensor that sends a signal to a caregiver’s smart phone when an Alzheimer’s patient steps out of bed.
Rose Ellen O’Connor
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To protect his grandfather, Kenneth Shinozuka, 16, created a motion sensor that sends a signal to a caregiver’s smart phone when an Alzheimer’s patient steps out of bed.

Kenneth Shinozuka was six when a policeman brought his grandfather home, who’d been wandering the freeway in his pajamas. His grandfather had always been there for Kenneth, reading and singing to him and taking him for walks on the beach.

Now his grandfather Deming Feng needed help. Getting lost wasn’t the first sign he had Alzheimer’s, but it was the most dramatic. Kenneth vowed to do everything he could to protect his beloved grandpa. In August, Kenneth, 16, received a $50,000 Scientific American magazine Science in Action Award for inventing a motion sensor that sends a signal to a caregiver’s smart phone when a patient steps out of bed.

One of the biggest rewards, Kenneth says, is that now his aunt Sophia Feng, his grandfather’s primary caregiver, can sleep at night. And his grandfather is no longer wandering, a dangerous habit that can result in death, Kenneth says. There have been no slip-ups in the motion sensor for 15 months.

He sometimes got discouraged when he was working on the motion sensor, but his family’s struggles prodded him not to give up.

“The safety risks that wandering imposed on my grandfather definitely motivated me to continue working on the device even when I had hit a hard spot,” Kenneth said in an interview with Not Impossible Now.

Kenneth Shinozuka

Photo credit: James Xue

More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s and every 67 seconds someone in the U.S. develops the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The disease takes its toll on 15.5 million caregivers, burdened with the stress of caring for a loved one with the disease. Sixty-five percent of all Alzheimer’s patients wander, according to the association. Kenneth’s aunt, who has a PhD in pharmaceutical science, had to quit her job as a professor to care for his grandfather, Kenneth’s mother Maria Feng said in an interview.

Kenneth got the idea for a motion sensor one night when he was watching his grandfather and he started to get up to wander.

“As soon as he stepped onto the floor, I had this sort of light bulb moment, sort of a eureka moment.”

Kenneth’s motion sensor attaches to a sock or the bottom of a foot. In a TED Talks appearance, Kenneth said he faced three challenges in developing the sensor. First, he needed to come up with a material that was thin enough to be comfortable on the bottom of a foot. He tried rubber but quickly ruled it out because it was too thick. He decided to use film with electrically conducted pressure-sensitive ink particles. Once pressure is applied, the particles move closer together, starting the signal.

Next, he had to design a wearable wireless circuit, but a wireless signal transmission requires heavy bulky batteries, Kenneth said. He used Bluetooth energy technology, which consumes very little power and can be driven by a coin-sized battery. Finally, he had to write code for an app that would transform a smart phone into a remote monitor. That required watching YouTube videos and reading textbooks, he said.

He says the motion sensor isn’t available to the general public yet, but he hopes to have the logistics worked out by the end of the month. Kenneth plans to sell the device through his website Safewander.com.

Kenneth is the only child of Maria Feng and Masanobu Shinozuka, both civil engineering professors at Columbia University in New York City. He lived his first 13 years in Newport Beach, California, where his parents were the principal caregivers for his grandfather. His grandmother Ping Shen also lived with them. The first sign of his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s came when they were vacationing in Japan and his grandfather took him for a walk in a park and got lost. His mother found them after about half an hour.

“Kenneth got really scared,” Maria Feng said. “He was four years old.”

Kenneth took it upon himself to make life safer for his grandfather. When he was six and in kindergarten, an elderly friend of the family fell in the bathroom and was injured and badly burned. Worried about his grandfather, Kenneth came up with a “smart bathroom.” Motion sensors would be installed in the bathroom tiles to detect a fall. When he was seven and his grandfather started having trouble remembering what medicine to take, Kenneth thought up the “smart medicine cabinet” that would use sensors to tell a patient what medicines to take.

Both ideas received first place awards in the Outstanding Inventions contest held each year at Irvine Valley College in Irvine, California, for elementary through high school students.

“He’s very close to his grandfather,” his mother said. “He knows the struggles of the elderly.”

Kenneth and his grandfather share a love of singing. Kenneth sings a special song to his grandfather, who sometimes remembers and can sing along. It’s about a road in China and seeing off an old friend.

“It’s a song that my grandfather taught me when I was very young,” Kenneth said. “And in order to keep his memory alive I sing back to him the same song that he taught me when I was growing up.”

Kenneth and his family moved to Manhattan two-and-a-half years ago. He’s a junior at the exclusive Horace Mann School in the Bronx.

Kenneth says he doesn’t have much spare times these days, but what he has he spends on a wide array of activities. He’s editor-in-chief of Cinemann Magazine, a school publication, and critiques movies at his own website, oneminutereviews.org. (His favorite movie of all time is “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

He’s active in the Boy Scouts of America and is Manhattan Chief of the Order of the Arrow, the scout’s honor society. Last month, he was one of 10 delegates selected to present the organization’s annual report to top officials in Washington. The boys were selected from approximately 2.4 million scouts, the association says.

He also hikes. His mother says as a grade-schooler, he trekked up and down the Grand Canyon for over a week with a 25-pound pack. Kenneth says he takes a lot of day hikes and they give him a chance to decompress.

“Going on hikes sort of not only gives me the opportunity to look at all the beauty that nature has to offer,” Kenneth said, “but also gives me a chance to separate myself from everything else that’s going on in my life.”

Top photo caption: Kenneth Shinozuka with his grandfather Deming Feng. (Photo credit: James Xue)