Concerned about caring for your aging parents? Here’s some good news: Tomorrow’s aging at home technology will make today’s medical alert buttons look like rotary dial phones from 1955.
Wireless motion sensors that monitor your aging parent as they walk around the house, lay in bed, and use the bathroom. Computer-based word and memory games that help a remote healthcare professional monitor brain function and motor skills for warning signs of impairment. An electronic pill dispenser that tracks when medication is taken and signals when to take it.
It’s the future of aging at home — and it’s being developed now by major corporations who want a piece of the enormous market for technology that makes it easier and safer for aging baby boomers to age in place as long as possible.
In an excellent Los Angeles Times article, writer Walter Hamilton details the extensive research conducted in the homes of 480 elderly in Portland, Ore., to field test these new technologies. The studies are being run by the Oregon Center for Aging & Technology at Oregon Health & Science University and funded, in part, by Intel and General Electric.
…Rutherford’s two-bedroom condominium has been outfitted with an array of electronic monitoring gear that might eventually find its way to retail shelves — all of it light years away from those rudimentary medical-alert necklaces advertised in an endless loop of TV commercials.
Motion sensors along hallways and ceilings record her gait and walking speed. A monitor on her back door observes when she leaves the house, and another one on the refrigerator keeps tabs on how often she’s eating.
A few months ago, the former waitress even tested a robot with a Skype-like video monitor that lets faraway relatives check on loved ones.
Rutherford’s granddaughter Katie Cooper piloted “Celia” from home in rural Wyoming, steering the machine — shaped like a 4-foot paper clip on wheels — around Rutherford’s house as they spoke.
At first, Cooper struggled to control Celia, bumping the robot into tables and running over a shopping bag. But she got the hang of it quickly.
“My grandmother’s furniture hasn’t changed in 20 years. I knew the layout of the house,” she said. “Anybody who’s ever played a video game would have no problem using this.”
The equipment in Rutherford’s home is monitored by researchers at the Oregon lab, which was established in 2004 and developed most of the gear.
The lab includes a “model home” to test new gadgets. One is a special bed laced with sensors to assess breathing patterns, heart rate and general sleep quality. If someone lying on the bed holds a breath for a few seconds, the computer monitor flashes “subject has stopped breathing.”
A pill box fitted with electronic switches records when medication is taken. And a Wii video game system has been rejiggered so that players stand on a platform that measures their weight and balance.
More is on the drawing board at the Oregon tech lab and elsewhere: software to help dementia patients find their way home if they get lost, devices that interpret facial expressions for signs of depression and robotic “pets” that have lifelike interactions with seniors.
Experts are cautiously optimistic about this new generation of safety and healthcare monitoring technology.
The technology is appealing for health insurers and Medicare hawks because it is seen as a way to reduce or control skyrocketing healthcare costs. Compared to an in-office visit, it’s a lot less expensive to monitor basic bodily functions like blood pressure if you can get an elderly person to put their arm in a cuff that’s connected to a computer. And remote monitoring can be conducted by technicians who make considerably less per hour than a physician’s assistant or registered nurse.
More advanced monitoring technology also promises to bring additional peace of mind to the adult children of aging parents — many of whom are caring for aging parents while trying to raise and support their own families.
But there is serious concern that the new aging at home technology may also isolate elderly adults, especially if they are predisposed to staying at home in the first place. Social interaction with family and friends is critical for mental health and healthy aging. No sensor can anticipate or prevent every health or safety problem. And tracking mom as she moves around her home is no substitute for visiting in person and often.