Chicago Harvey Bumpus doesn't like to eat alone.
But his wife died more than a year ago and his family is scattered across the country. Most nights, he eats a meal of oatmeal or hot dogs and eats alone.
"I don't have much choice," said the 82-year-old retired correctional officer who looks forward to Christmas as one of the few days each year when he gathers with his family.
But when the planes, trains and automobiles that brought everyone together take his family away - he, like millions of other elderly people, will be alone again.
Now, the technology consulting company Accenture is developing a system called "The Virtual Family Dinner" that would allow families to get together - virtually - as often as they'd like.
The concept is simple. An elderly woman in, say, California, makes herself dinner. When she gets ready to sit down and eat, the system detects it and alerts her son in Chicago. The son then goes to his kitchen, where a small camera and microphone capture what he is doing. Speakers and a screen - as big as a television or as small as a picture frame - allow him to hear and see his mother, who has a similar setup.
"We are trying to really bring back the kind of family interactions we used to take for granted," said Dadong Wan, a senior researcher in Accenture Ltd.'s Chicago labs.
Experts say such interactions could address a growing problem: elderly people who eat alone often don't eat enough or eat the wrong kinds of food. It can trigger a host of physical and mental problems that eventually can become life-threatening.
"To physically eat with others, to be able to do that, there are not only social benefits, but health benefits," said Dr. Julie Locher, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, who specializes in eating issues among older people.
Locher, who suspects virtual meals could forestall hospitalization or placement in nursing homes, was so intrigued with Accenture's project she plans to study it.
When a prototype becomes available, possibly in about two years, it likely will cost $500 to $1,000 per household, Wan said.
Senior Accenture manager Peter Glaser said he hopes insurance companies and government agencies help pay for the system, much as they do for home health care workers, once they see its benefits.
But it must be easy to operate to attract people like Bumpus, who doesn't own a computer and may be intimidated by technology, Glaser said. Although video conferencing with a PC and webcam is widely used today, it requires technical know-how.
In Accenture's lab, projectors are mounted on the ceilings of two mock kitchens - Wan is in one and Glaser is down the hall in the other. In each, activities taking place in the other room are projected onto a large window, allowing the men to watch each other; microphones allow them to carry on a conversation.
In homes, cameras and microphones could be placed on top of a counter or TV set or built into "smart picture frames that capture what is going on in one kitchen and display it in the other," Wan said. The screens can show just the person or the entire room, depending on how the cameras are set up.
Going beyond conferencing
The system could incorporate computers, television sets and broadband already in many homes, so customers could have the system installed much the same as they do cable television, Glaser said.
Wan said the Virtual Family Dinner goes further than today's video conferencing.
For example, when an elderly person puts a meal on the table, the system's software automatically finds family members who are similarly wired and determines who might be available.
That could be done in any number of ways, including determining whether a networked family member is watching television. It could then send a message that would be displayed on the TV.
Such a window into the lives of elderly loved ones is an exciting prospect for Dr. Cai Glushak, a Chicago physician who is the caregiver for his parents in New York. Glushak is medical director for AXA Assistance, which has a program in which elderly patients are monitored by the company. What makes Accenture's work so compelling, he said, is that it extends to him as a son the same kind of access that AXA's program allows medical professionals.
"I feel very limited by only being able to talk on the phone most of the time," said Glushak, one of an estimated 34 million Americans caring for a person age 50 or older.
"To get a look at them would give you a whole new understanding of what is going on," he said, noting it would be helpful to know everything from how thin they look to whether they're combing their hair or wearing clean clothes.