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Smart Homes: Visioning Elderland

New technology will change the experience of growing old both at home and in the community

In New Zealand, new flooring tiles absorb the impact of falls.

In Japan, a wearable robot suit called Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) uses sensors that read nerve signals and tell the suit how to move, assisting people with weakened muscles or disabilities.

See also: How technology can improve your health.

In the United States, a mattress pad developed by a University of Virginia team checks heart rate, breathing and sleep quality, and forwards the data to distant health care professionals.

More aging-related technology will be incorporated into almost every aspect of people's daily lives and will change the experience of growing old, both inside the home and outside in the community, predicts Majd Alwan, vice president of the Center for Aging Services Technologies.

The new technology occurs in the face of conflicting trends: an aging America—the last boomer turns 65, and one of every five Americans will be 65 or older, in 2029—soaring health care costs, a growing shortage of professional caregivers, and older adults' continued desire to live in their own homes.

"All of the studies show they want to age in place," Jeffrey Rosenfeld, a Hofstra University gerontologist, says of seniors. "People are putting technologies into place now that are going to help them."

Thousands of products already in development will make older Americans' activities simpler and safer. The idea is to help people stay involved in their communities, says Rosenfeld, co-author of the book Home Design in an Aging World.

Elder-friendly homes will likely incorporate robotics, mechanical helpers that move around the home like much-improved and more useful Roombas—the robotic vacuum sweepers. They'll operate in combination with domotics, or home automation, the wired sensory framework of the home itself; a house will "know" whether its occupants are at home or out, for example.

"We're going to move into an era of smart residential technologies and homes," says Rosenfeld.

Imagine an ordinary day in 2035. As you sleep, the sensor-laden bed pad checks for irregularities in your vital signs. An accompanying electronics box stores monthly data and brings abnormalities to the attention of you and your doctor. In the morning, your smartphone-like pill dispenser reminds you to take your medicine and at the appropriate time alerts your doctor to renew prescriptions. The refrigerator lets you know that the milk is going to expire in three days, and offers breakfast suggestions to maintain healthy cholesterol.

Community spaces will adapt, too. Machines at the gym will recommend workouts based on your physical needs and limitations. In the supermarket, shelves will rotate so that you don't have to reach dangerously high or bend uncomfortably low. Much of this will be made possible by a personalized radio frequency identification chip that stores basic driving, financial and health information on a card. Alwan says the day may come when this chip is inserted in people's thumbs, instead.

Next: How this technology could save you money. >>

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