New technology aims to help seniors keep independence

Innovations at home, in centers can jog memories, track activities


CHICAGO -- In an assisted-living home on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., a retired nuclear engineer who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, gets out of bed in the middle of the night. His daughter, a night owl in San Diego who monitors her father's location, vital signs and activities through a secure Web connection, sees in real time that he has left his room and gone to the nearby kitchen.

"I see Pop's been conducting midnight ice cream raids again," she says in an e-mail to her siblings the next day.

A couple of hundred miles away, in a test apartment in Seattle, a computer engineer perfects technology he hopes may someday enable people like his aging parents to stay in their homes years longer. The technology goes something like this: Most household items are wired with unobtrusive sensors that detect every time they are handled. The result is a detailed daily log that records what the house's residents are eating, how well they are keeping up with housework and hygiene, and whether they took their medications on time and remembered to turn off the stove.

This year, the first of America's 79 million baby boomers turns 60, and many have begun confronting the dual challenge of preparing for old age while coping with the realities of their parents' advancing years. Like no generation before, the boomers, a demographic long ago indoctrinated to a world of e-mail and BlackBerry devices, wi-fi and video conferencing, increasingly are turning to cutting-edge technology to help navigate these often choppy and anxiety-inducing waters.

"This isn't cold technology for a cold, heartless society," said Richard Suzman, director of the behavior and social research program at the National Institute on Aging. "It serves a real purpose and shows real promise."

Research and innovation - some academic, some commercial and all directed toward the elderly and those who care for and about them - are under way across the country:

Computer engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed memory-aid systems that enable people to look at instant digital photos to help them remember what tasks they've completed that day.

At the University of Washington, researchers are developing a hand-held GPS device that uses artificial intelligence to predict where a forgetful person is trying to go and help him navigate with a series of verbal prompts and directional instructions.

Homebuilders in Florida are offering smart floors that can sense when an elderly person has fallen and summon emergency help.

The technology is supporting a burgeoning social movement aimed at enabling people to "age in place" - to grow old inside their own homes.

The movement is, in part, a response to the practical reality that by 2030, almost one in five Americans will be 65 years or older and the nation's nursing homes and assisted-living facilities are not capable of housing the largest generation in American history unless people move into these facilities much later in life.

Yet the challenges of enabling people to age in place are myriad: Age makes people's health less stable and memories less sharp, and some experts worry the technology will keep people at home longer than is safe; family members are routinely far away and perhaps not involved enough to monitor the exhaustive personal data such technology produces; and privacy often must be sacrificed for such technology to work.

At Oatfield Estates, a peaceful, wooded assisted-living facility with a stunning view of Oregon's Mount Hood, 68 residents live in six free-standing homes, each containing six private living suites, as well as a common kitchen, dining room and social areas.

Though homey, Oatfield is techno to the hilt. Residents wear badges that trip a silent sensor as they walk throughout the buildings and grounds. Residents' beds take daily weight readings, determine how much time a person spent sleeping and how many times he got up at night; the beds instantly alert the staff if a resident categorized as a "fall risk" appears to be getting up so a nurse can rush to help him get safely to his feet. And this information - and more - can be viewed by family members on a secure Web site, assuming the resident has agreed to that.

Barry Jacobson, whose father, Jack, lives at Oatfield, keeps a "Pop" icon minimized on his computer at work in Portland. Throughout the day, he checks on what his father has been up to: whom he dined with, what his vitals are, where he is, how quickly nurses responded to any call for help he made, which activities he participated in.

"It has been so reassuring to be able to check in anytime," Jacobson said. "There is no longer the anxiety that the next phone call is going to be from someone there saying something's wrong with Dad."

Kirsten Scharnberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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