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Archive for Sunday, October 31, 2004

New gadgets may help seniors stay independent

October 31, 2004

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"Aware" homes that sense our movement and alert our relatives if we've been in one place too long.

Kitchens that film our cooking and remind us what we were doing if we lose our place.

Pedometers that not only count how many steps we are taking, but also nag us if we aren't taking enough.

These are just a few of the high-tech gadgets in store for aging baby boomers and their children as they enter old age. Experts say tomorrow's seniors should be able to stay healthy, independent and in their own homes much longer, thanks to a host of emerging technologies aimed at addressing the coming "Age Wave."

That is, if the research is adequately funded.

"We cannot limit our imagination to drug therapies and pills" aimed at fending off old age, says Eric Dishman, a lead researcher with Intel Corp. "If we don't develop a technology plan, we are doomed."

Dishman points out that about 35 million people -- one in eight -- in the United States are already older than the age of 65. By 2030, that number will double, to constitute 20 percent of the population. Seventy-six million American baby boomers are expected to retire in the next decade.

To prepare for the onslaught, universities and private companies across the country are experimenting with devices that deal with the illnesses associated with aging. Some offer early detection or remind people to live a healthy lifestyle. Others enable people to better deal with illness while still living in their own home.

The Georgia Institute of Technology's Aware Home Research Initiative has turned a three-story, 5,040-square-foot home into a living laboratory for testing technology that lets older adults age in their own place.

Researchers envision a day when motion sensors in a senior's home may be able to alert a relative in another state if they have fallen, haven't gotten enough activity during the day or haven't moved from one spot in a long time.

The "Cook's Collage," a camera hidden above the kitchen countertop, records the last seven steps in the cooking process and displays them on a flat screen in the kitchen. If the chef loses track of what he or she is doing, a retrospective reel of the most recent action serves as a reminder.

One of Dishman's favorite gadgets is a fairly simple one that he wears himself -- a glorified pedometer called a SmartBrain. It traces the number of steps he's taken in a day and creates a digital read-out that can then be shared with loved ones online. If a senior doesn't appear to be getting enough activity, it could let them -- and their caregivers -- know they need to take more steps, he says.

Dishman says he's aware that much of the emerging technology will raise red flags by people worried about the watchful eye of Big Brother, but he believes many seniors of the future will agree to cameras and motion sensors in the home if it means they don't have to move into an elder care facility.

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