Baby Boomers Fuel Wave Of Products Meant To Help Them Live Longer And Better

MOBILITY 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.

MASS ADOPTION? 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."

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