When 80-year-old Paul Marrs arises each morning, nine sensors in his Belle Plaine senior apartment begin tracking his activity and dispatching an array of data to a computer in Mendota Heights -- did he go back to bed, use the toilet, open the refrigerator?

It's a high-tech solution that is transforming services to frail seniors in Minnesota and across the country by spotting problems while they're small. For some seniors and their families, it's raised some privacy concerns, but for others, such as Marrs, it's a godsend.

For two years, it has helped keep him in his lower-cost apartment at the Kingsway Senior Living complex and out of the adjacent assisted-living unit. That $900 annual service saves him $22,000 a year.

Across Minnesota, thousands of elders are able to stay healthier, and delay or avoid institutional care, under the 24-hour-a-day attention of pressure sensors, motion detectors, pill dispensers, personal-alert pendants and other devices.

"We're really at the edge of major change," said Majd Alwan, who heads the Center for Aging Services Technologies, a coalition of companies, care providers and universities that develop and use new systems.

"There are barriers, but we are demonstrating that this works," he said. "We can improve lives for the elderly and their families."

At the forefront

Several major chains of care providers in Minnesota are among national leaders in the change, including Ecumen, Presbyterian Homes, Good Samaritan Society and Volunteers of America.

The array of sensing devices at Kingsway in Belle Plaine was developed by Healthsense of Mendota Heights, which is working with 50 other senior housing providers in Minnesota and an equal number in other states.

At Kingsway, each of the 22 assisted-living units has the full array of sensors included in its monthly fee. Like Marrs, about half of those in the 45 independent apartments buy the service at a reduced rate of $75 a month.

Its home health agency also is taking the devices into the community, sometimes just for a few weeks after surgery, or longer term to help people with chronic illnesses stay in their homes.

They pay the full cost: one-time fees of $1,500 to rent and $550 to install and program the system, and a monthly monitoring fee of $150.

"That sounds expensive, but it's about the same as two weeks in a nursing home," said Sharon Blume, director of family services and technology at Kingsway. "The savings start pretty quick."

Government agencies are beginning to pay providers for using the technology with low-income people and are offering grants to help. Kingsway just got its second $250,000 state grant to expand and is seeking federal money to go into subsidized senior housing.

Some preliminary findings are promising, say leaders of Volunteers of America, which is coordinating a project from its Eden Prairie office to install equipment in a range of facilities nationwide:

• Assisted-living care costs averaged $828 in a specific period, compared with $3,236 in a control group, by early detection of urinary tract infections and other health problems.

• Sleep monitors in nursing homes found that a third of residents were being wakened unnecessarily.

• Assisted-living nurses made 40 percent fewer phone consultations because the data from sensors allowed quicker diagnosis and treatment.

Now the focus is less on new gadgets and more on better ways to interpret and act on the information they generate, said Bryan Fuhr, Healthsense vice president of business development.

"This is not just an exercise," he said. "Innovation in Minnesota is coming from nonprofit providers whose mission is to improve lives. That's what this technology has to do."

Alert to changes

The Healthsense Wi-Fi system also can check a resident's blood pressure, blood sugar and other vital signs, track a resident moving through the building, and send out a cellphone alert to staff if there are signs of trouble.

And for families who want it, such as Marrs' son and daughter, the system sends out daily all-is-well e-mails.

"I didn't realize how worried I'd been about Dad until I started getting the e-mails," Dianne Cutter said Friday from the airport in Scranton, Pa. Traveling weekly for business, she's more apt to get the message in Thailand or France than at her home in Chaska.

"I feel like I can relax. I can go online to look at the details," she said. "But mainly I want to know he's OK."

Too close and personal?

Older Americans quizzed by AARP in 2010 had many concerns about the new technology. Most thought it might be too expensive, but half worried about invasion of privacy.

The companies developing and using the new systems say many of those concerns evaporate as customers learn details and start to use them.

But they try not to be too intrusive -- no cameras and no microphones in living quarters, for instance.

The questions usually come not from residents but concerned relatives, said Larry Jorgensen, vice president and chief information officer at Ecumen, which serves about 10,000 older clients in a range of services.

"Although there was the gentleman, I remember, who put his hat on the motion sensor in the bathroom because he didn't trust it," Jorgensen said.

The response from the elder Marrs in Belle Plaine is far more common, experts say.

"I hardly even think about it, but when I do, I like it," Marrs said. "I've been in the hospital three times, I've fallen a few times, and frankly, I feel safer knowing somebody's paying attention."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253