By Gary Robbins
The San Diego Union-Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Scientists are developing everything from mattress sensors that monitor a person’s heart, to “smart” walkers that look for obstacles, to belts that deploy air bags if someone is about to fall.
The San Diego Union-Tribune
“Holy cow, this is scary!”
Ken Goble was 160 feet above the ground, walking a narrow plank. Or so it seemed.
The 69-year-old was wearing a virtual reality headset that tricked him into thinking he was up high and in danger.
He was simply crossing a lab floor at San Diego State University, where scientists were using virtual reality to gauge how stress and anxiety influence a person’s gait and balance.
Researcher Harsimran Baweja stood nearby, smiling.
“We want to help people stay active and independent as they age,” Baweja said as his team checked sensors on Roble’s arms and legs. “If we see something, we can try to fix it. This is about quality of life and people’s dignity.”
It’s also about the rapid rise of “senior tech.”
Scientists are developing everything from mattress sensors that monitor a person’s heart, to “smart” walkers that look for obstacles, to belts that deploy air bags if someone is about to fall.
Seniors with dementia can wear GPS-equipped shoes that reveal their location to loved ones.
Researchers are no longer focused only on finding ways to treat sickness and disease.
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Now, they’re broadly working with companies to fight the indignities of aging and help people live longer and better in their own homes.
It’s called “aging in place,” a nascent movement that’s largely being driven by tech-savvy baby boomers who hate the stigma and reality of getting older, both for themselves and their elderly parents.
It’s a message that resonates.
Tech giant Google — a bastion of youth — has come to realize that baby boomers might be early adopters of the self-driving cars that it’s developing.
Other businesses are making it easier for people with arthritis or tremors or poor vision to wear small, specialized monitors that provide real-time tracking of their health vitals.
Such innovations are being closely watched by the nation’s $3 trillion-per-year health care industry, which is faced with a large and deepening shortage of caregivers at the very moment that America’s population of older residents is soaring.
The number of Americans who are 65 or older surpassed 50 million for the first time last year. Demographers predict the figure will hit 71 million by 2030 and 83 million by 2050.
The flood tide comes as people are living longer; life expectancy at birth grew by 10.5 years between 1950 and 2010. On average, people who are 65 today will live roughly 20 more years.
The Census Bureau said almost 90 percent of these people want to remain in the home of their choice as they age.
“I strongly believe that technology will change the face of aging as we have known it since times immemorial,” said Dilip Jeste, director of UC San Diego’s Center for Healthy Aging. “Just as presbyopia is no longer a major problem — thanks to eye glasses — many physical impairments of old age will cease being disabilities with the use of technology. The notion that aging means disability will be laid to rest — and with that, the stigma of being old.”
UC San Diego is heavily involved in the effort to not only preserve but also enhance quality of life during the latter years of a person’s life.
The university’s robotics institute is developing software for small robots that “chat” with humans, with the goal of easing the loneliness that many older people feel.
The school’s Design Lab is looking at ways to make it easier for seniors to board buses. UC San Diego is even exploring the idea of building a retirement home on campus so scientists can more directly learn about the needs of the aged.
All of these technological advances aren’t meant to be a panacea, and analysts warn that the quality and affordability of such products can vary greatly. But a survey of senior tech projects in San Diego County and elsewhere shows that progress is being made on many fronts.
Time takes a toll on people.
The older we get, the more likely we are to suffer from muscle weakness, poor balance, slower reflexes, impaired vision, arthritis and cognitive problems.
Such changes don’t necessarily mean that older people can’t lead a full and fulfilling life. Studies show that in general, individuals grow happier and more thankful as they age.
Still, experts urge seniors and the elderly to pay attention to one particular reality of aging: The physical effects of growing older make people more likely to suffer a fall.
The National Council on Aging said 2.8 million older Americans are treated in hospital emergency rooms for falls each year, and that 800,000 of those patients are hospitalized. Falls cause or contribute to about 27,000 deaths annually, a figure roughly equivalent to the population of Imperial Beach.
Scientists and entrepreneurs are approaching the challenge from several angles. There’s special interest in the sort of virtual reality research that Bawega does as director of San Diego State’s Neuromechanics and Neuroplasticity Lab.
“We want to know what the brain is telling a person’s muscles when they are moving,” said Bawega, a neuro-muscular expert who also provides physical rehabilitation services.
“We find out by putting sensors on a person’s brain and other body parts and have them experience different scenarios while they’re in the immersive environment of virtual reality,” he added. “The data we get will help create algorithms to predict whether a person is at high risk for having a fall.”
The data also can be used to correct problems with a person’s walk or balance, making falls less likely.
Ocuvera, a startup in Lincoln, Nebraska, is taking a different approach. It’s using 3-D cameras and advanced software to analyze the body language of patients who are in hospital beds.
“Those movements reveal when a person is going to try to get out of bed, which is when many falls happen,” said Steve Kiene, chief executive for Ocuvera. “The system alerts the nurse in time to do something about it.”
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has done related work, producing WiGait, a small wall sensor that studies a person’s gait to search for signs of Parkinson’s disease and stroke.
In Philadelphia, the company Active Protective has developed a “smart belt” that’s able to sense when a person is about to fall. Small air bags automatically deploy, offering special protection to that individual’s hips. More than 300,000 older Americans fracture their hips each year, so smart belts are starting to gain attention.
The aging-in-place trend is growing, but the home health care industry is struggling to keep up. There’s a major shortage of professional caregivers who can make in-person visits.
Technology might ease this imbalance between demand and supply.
The San Diego-based company GreatCall markets a network of tiny sensors that can be placed in people’s homes to monitor whether those folks are going about their normal activities, such as getting in and out of bed, preparing meals and using the bathroom.
The sensors look for potentially worrisome changes in a person’s routines and alert off-site caregivers if such shifts occur. The technology can help caregivers manage a greater number of people, and it can give a more holistic picture of what’s going on in a home.
GreatCall said it has been promoting its sensors system carefully, watching for how people feel about being passively monitored.
“We use sensors, not cameras,” said David Inns, the company’s chief executive. “Cameras immediately raise questions of privacy. Even putting sensors in the home can feel like a privacy (invasion) issue. In cases like that, we would talk to people about our Lively Mobile medical alert device, which can be used at home as well as out in the street. It’s less intrusive. It feels like it’s there to help you.”
About 7 million older Americans use walkers, canes or crutches, and many aren’t happy about it. One of the chief complaints: The equipment is often poorly designed.
“I start to hurt if I use a conventional walker for five or six minutes,” said Fred Daniel, 85, who lives in Carlsbad. “I get pain across my shoulders. I need something more like this.”
Daniel pointed to an experimental walker that was recently on display at a UC San Diego student design competition. He had advised students on the prototype, which features a high horizontal bar — similar to those on shopping carts. Daniel thought it was a more natural form of support.
The walker also has lighting so it can be used at night, plus a GPS tracker for the potential benefit of dementia patients.
The prototype reflects the sort of thinking that professional designers are bringing to next-generation walkers and canes. Engineers want to exploit advances in wireless technology by outfitting walkers with sensors that detect obstacles, report falls and monitor blood pressure, heart rate and other vitals.
Scientists also want to exploit “gesture recognition” sensors, which enable people to summon their walker simply by waving at it. The walker would then activate its battery-powered wheels to roll slowly to the intended user.
Such machines would have to pass muster with health insurers to gain broad use, because most consumers likely wouldn’t shell out hundreds or thousands of their own dollars.
LONELINESS AND ISOLATION
An estimated one-third of Americans 65 or older live alone. The figure reaches 50 percent by the time a person hits 85.
Many residents are happy living on their own. But scientists and physicians said living alone can cause a profound sense of loneliness and isolation for some people, which in turn can lead to serious health complications, notably depression, substance abuse and high blood pressure. Studies have shown that loneliness also can contribute to dementia and premature death.
“Loneliness is one of the greatest problems in aging,” said UC San Diego’s Jeste.
New technologies are emerging to help older people stay connected to the world beyond their dwelling.
The San Diego-based company Independa is taking advantage of the fact that people 65 or older watch an average of 51 hours of TV per week. It has developed software that makes it easy for friends, family and caregivers to send videos, photos, audio and text messages to a person’s TV screen. The software also allows for live video chats.
A small drop-down menu appears in the upper-right corner of a “smart TV” linked to the software, notifying viewers that they have new content. That information could be anything from a reminder to take a specific medication to news that a loved one wants to share a video.
The menu doesn’t interrupt the show currently being broadcast on the TV. And the software system is interactive: People can send things like their vital signs to caregivers. They just type the data into the same remote control they use for their television.
“The remote is very important; people are accustomed to using it,” said Kian Saneii, Independa’s chief executive. “It even has a button they can push to call a loved one.”
People who live alone or feel walled off also can connect with others through devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, which are both voice-activated personal digital assistants.
The Echo can be used for person-to-person calls, while Amazon recently added a video screen called Show to enable people to make hands-free video calls.
It’s unclear whether older people will use such devices in large numbers.
A good segment of seniors and the elderly are on fixed incomes, and the price of internet service has risen sharply in recent years.
Likewise, electronic devices aren’t cheap. For example, the Amazon Echo costs $180 and the Show add-on is $230.
In addition, there’s a usability challenge.
Older people adopt new electronics at slower rates than the rest of society, research has indicated.
For instance, several surveys have shown that roughly 40 percent of U.S. seniors have a smartphone — compared with about three-quarters of American adults as a whole.
Experts said the adoption rate for older people at least partly reflects the fact that most electronic gadgets are designed by people in their 20s and 30s for a customer base that’s young or middle-aged. The design and features typically don’t take into account the physical and mental limitations related to aging.
“The ‘typing and swiping’ features you see on things like smartphones can be unappealing to an older person who has a physical limitation like a tremor in their hands,” said Laurie Orlov, a Florida-based analyst who writes and manages the website Aging in Place Technology Watch.
“Products like Amazon Echo are wonderful for older adults; they simply respond to your voice,” she added.
Jeste agrees: “Older people don’t want 1,000 apps for their smartphones. They want a screen that has numbers and letters in a large font so they can read them. They don’t dislike technology. They just want it to be easier, and we can do that.”