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Seniors Need Robots And New Technology To Help At Home

by Ellen Beck
Washington (UPI) Apr 27, 2004
Elder advocates from academia and industry urged Congress on Tuesday to fund research and nudge reluctant companies to re-imagine existing technologies to help seniors live high-quality, independent lives.

"Our biggest problem nationally is an imagination problem, not a technology problem," Eric Dishman, director of Proactive Health Research for Intel Corp., of Hillsboro, Ore., told the Senate Special Committee on Aging. "There are hundreds of technologies sitting in the labs of American universities and technology companies today that could save billions of dollars in our nation's healthcare bill, if we could only focus some of our nation's ... innovation and investment dollars on the needs of our aging population."

The focus, he said, needs to shift from creating new devices to using existing technology to enhance everyday devices such as toasters and coffee pots to help people of advancing age cope better with their lives.

Young engineers and researchers developing the newest in technology "can't imagine there is somebody who could possibly need a technology that would help them get dressed (by) themselves," said Dishman, who also is the chairman of the Center for Aging Services Technologies, a consortium including researchers, senior groups and technology companies working on assistive technology.

There is a "very real challenge in bringing these technologies out of the lab and into the marketplace and into these seniors homes," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, the committee's chairman. "Even the most brilliant technology can fall short in that it may be too expensive or too complex for the average senior to use."

Dishman said some companies have told him they do not want their brand associated with the aging demographic. Also, researchers complain elder-tech projects fall through the cracks of existing government-sponsored research and developers are afraid of being sued. Such barriers, real or perceived, pervade technology development.

Martha Pollack, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, testified that advanced technology should not replace but supplement human caregivers in the home.

For example, her team has developed a device that helps seniors remember to eat or take medicines. It is a "glorified alarm clock" that does more than sound an alarm on schedule. She said the device, called an auto-minder, can recognize when a person is eating and then simply note that they should the medication they need to take with meals.

Another device, called Coach, developed by Canadian researchers, will guide a senior through a single activity -- such as hand washing -- by giving cues to each step in the process, Pollack explained.

"There are significant technology challenges yet to realize this potential," she said, including the need for advances in wireless technology in the home, artificial intelligence for everyday devices and better human-computer interaction; research that is difficult to find funding for through existing government programs.

Pollack suggested Congress explore development of a coordinated funding mechanism for elderly assistive technology.

"How do we enable people to live longer and have their health and do things?" Asked Joseph Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Age Lab in Cambridge. "We want to use technology to do things differently."

Coughlin said assistive technology is crucial for baby boomers who are searching for solutions to help them care for aging parents. There is a $29-billion-a-year loss in productivity to business and industry because of time away from the job needed by workers to care for aging parents, he said. This situation demands "inventing a lifestyle" for seniors that helps them retain their independence.

He suggested a concept called retail health -- using technology in drug stores and grocery stores to help seniors, creating smarter vehicles that help seniors remain mobile longer, and employing telemedicine and multi-media at home.

"If the market is there, they will get over their age bias," Coughlin said of companies that could use tax credits to develop this technology.

Stephen McConnell, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the Alzheimer's Association in Washington, said the advocacy group has had a technology work group studying ideas for two years. He suggested Congress create a national commission on technology and aging and support assistive technology research.

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