November 1, 2007 Computer scientists have designed technologies to help the elderly maintain their independence. One device uses optical sensors to oversee people as they pick up and use items. Another device uses radio frequency identification technology to track which medications have been taken and when. Additionally a variety of sensors at a house can send information on the weather, activity of a person, and other information over the internet to another house, where a picture frame displays the findings graphically.
The United States is in the middle of a longevity revolution. The average person is expected to live to be 77. Boomers will hit 65 in 2011. Homes are going high tech to help us as we grow older.
After 70 years of marriage Ross and Helen Tipton still make beautiful music together. They're just two of more than 60 million seniors in America facing new technology head on!
"We are very fortunate and lucky to have found each other," Helen told Ivanhoe. "He's learned computer at his age, well I think that's a miracle."
His computer may come in handy. Computer scientists and human factors psychologists at Georgia Tech have developed the 'technology coach.' It takes complicated tasks such as checking your glucose level and breaks it down step-by-step on the computer.
"On the box it says it's as easy as 1-2-3 but when you fold out the list of instructions, it's actually 53 steps," Brian Jones, a computer researcher at Georgia Tech, told Ivanhoe.
The technology coach uses optical sensors on an overhead camera. It can tell if a person has picked up the wrong bottle, or if they are doing the steps out of order. The screen then reveals the problem and shows how to fix it. One day this technology may be used for more than just medicine. It could be applied to programming DVD players, TVs and answering machines.
Another problem for seniors is remembering and taking their medication. This 'memory mirror' may be the answer. "The memory mirror allows people to manage medication by showing them what they've done, what they need to do, but it does not force them to do it," Elizabeth Mynatt, human centered computing expert at Georgia Tech, told Ivanhoe.
It uses radio frequency barcodes to track what medication has been taken and when.
And new technology is not just keeping track of medication ... but it's also keeping track of people. "One of the things we talked to older adults about, would you be accepting of having people monitor your home and one common response is, 'well, if I know who is doing the monitoring.'" Wendy Rogers, PhD, professor of psychology at Georgia Tech, told Ivanhoe.
You can get something that looks like a portrait of Mom -- but it will actually say so much more. Butterflies around the portrait show how active she has been during the day. The bigger the butterfly, the more movement; the movement is picked up by sensors placed around the house. It can show up to 28 days of information; so family members can see patterns.
"You don't just want to know how your Mom is doing on a particular day, but you're concerned maybe there are a few days in a row where things seem pretty quiet, maybe your Mom is sick," Rogers explained. Just a few new ideas that will help seniors like Helen and Ross Tipton keep living and loving life.
BACKGROUND: People are living longer than ever, and new technologies can help homebound senior citizens stay independent longer. For instance, home tracking and monitoring systems can help seniors operate home medical devices, or remember to take their medications, or feed their pets. And motion sensor systems can help bring peace of mind to distant relatives concerned that elderly family members might be injured or ill and unable to call for help.
THE TECHNOLOGY COACH: With the aid of new technology, the use of home medical devices is more prevalent among older adults. However, such devices are often not designed with consideration for the cognitive differences that accompany aging. Older adults typically need training to use these home medical devices, and often need assistance in their daily use. Costly errors are common. But informative feedback can improve their performance, and the Technology Coach provides it.
MEMORY MIRROR: Common daily tasks, such as taking medication or feeding the cat, can be difficult to recall performing, particularly for aging individuals whose memories can become confused. The Memory Mirror reflects the use of specified objects during a period of time (24 hours of a day). As a person uses an item, it is visually posted to the mirror and is recorded in a history log. If an item was previously used, the mirror reflects details o the previous number of usages. The Memory Mirror also warns of possibly lost items that have yet to be returned.
DIGITAL FAMILY PORTRAIT: When living dozens or hundreds of miles away it can be difficult to keep an eye out for elderly or disabled family members. The Digital Family Portrait can provide peace of mind while giving aging parents their privacy from constant phone calls checking up on them. The portrait can be hung on the concerned party's wall or propped up on a mantle. But, unlike a normal frame, the digital frame changes daily, providing updates on activities going on in the faraway house. Motion sensors record activity patterns, which are sent over the internet to the digital frame, which translates the information into visual clues, attempting to capture the observations that someone living next door or in the same home would make.
The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.