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Independent Living for the Aging Is Possible With New Technology

3 labs put aging in place to the test

Americans love their homes, and given a choice, they'd like to stay in them as they get older. According to a 2011 AARP report, 90 percent of people age 65 and over want to age where they are, though less than 10 percent are using the personal and safety technology that is already available to help them do just that.

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Audrey Mitchell uses robot Celia to communicate with her family members

Chris Mueller

Living Labs around the country give insight into how technology can help people stay in their homes longer.

Meanwhile, researchers, scientists and designers are working to create new technology to help Americans live independently throughout their lives. But how can they tell if their products will actually help or if people will even use them?

Honing such inventions through user feedback to make them more effective and appealing, even to monitor cognitive decline as it's happening is the concept behind "living labs." In this research method, medical and academic institutions test their ideas for days, weeks, even years in the homes of older adults. It's not just science that researchers must perfect; the technology must also fit into everyday lives.

"Yesterday living labs were novel," says Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab, "but today they are the new normal for research."

Take a look at research on healthy aging in three prominent living labs:

The Oregon Center for Aging and Technology (ORCATECH), part of Portland's Oregon Health & Science University, is testing technology in more than 150 houses, apartments and retirement communities in the metro area, as well as 200 other homes nationwide.

They asked: Do changes in mobility and walking speed predict cognitive decline? If so, doctors might be able to step in and mitigate the problem before there's a dramatic change. To find out, motion sensors are installed on participants' ceilings or appliances. Information on the speed and frequency of round-the-clock activity feeds into a computer in the home and then transmits to researchers. Retired radiologist Lucien Burke, 71, says he has 20 motion sensors scattered throughout the rooms in his house. Burke thinks participating in living experiments is important. "Progress is only made when volunteers come forward," he says.

Is wiring the lids of a pillbox to learn if users are taking their medication a better way than the current method of counting pills? And do those who take their meds responsibly have higher cognitive function? Researchers wired pillboxes with sensors that signal when each medicine lid is opened.

Next: Motion sensor findings and the use of iPad tablets. »

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Is placing a robot in the home intrusive? Does it reduce isolation? A volunteer participant lives with Celia, a robot with a video screen, which the participant can operate with a remote control. The volunteer's faraway family can direct Celia through the software installed on their own computer and move the robot to different rooms so relatives can "visit" with Grandma during the day.

They found: Scientists learned the motion sensors can't distinguish who triggers them —  was it a spouse or a visitor? So they are developing software to detect changes in activity to better analyze the data. The pillbox, they found, could be a sensitive measure of memory, since those who scored on the lower end of normal in cognition tests had a more difficult time remembering to take the pills. And Celia the robot? Researchers hypothesized she would be too intrusive, but testers loved the family contact. As long as care recipients could turn off the video screen for privacy purposes, social connectivity trumped having a big white robot in the middle of the room.

HAIL is a year-old partnership between the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, the Mayo Clinic Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging, and the Charter House, a continuing care retirement community that's connected to the Mayo Clinic and is the site of the lab.

They asked: Is a tablet computer (similar to an iPad) an effective tool for tracking how those with chronic diseases, like hypertension and diabetes, are taking their medications? Does it work for health coaching?

To find out, researchers installed a tablet computer with video messaging in participants' apartments and gave them wireless blood pressure cuffs. When participants take their blood pressure, their tablets record the information. If their levels are elevated, a health coach on a remote computer is able to have a live chat with the resident via the tablet and make suggestions on how to lower the numbers. After users tell the tablet computer they've taken their hypertension medication, the tablet displays their blood pressure score along with a picture of the circulatory system showing how the medicine affects the body.

HAIL researchers also wanted to know if patients would be annoyed by having to wear a Band-Aid-size cardiac sensor on the chest that transmits real-time information about heart health to a caregiving team. Would it feel intrusive?

Next: Findings from the iPad study and NASA technology. »

They found: Residents thought the tablet wasn't a problem and enjoyed playing an active role in their health. Watching how their medicine worked and seeing what happened to their body if they didn't take it made a difference. Testers also didn't mind wearing the cardiac monitor. Charter House resident Joanne Wayne, 77, tests the tablet and the cardiac monitor and participates in focus groups. She likes the medical feedback and enjoys being able to provide input into project designs.

Founded in 1999, the MIT AgeLab, the country's oldest living lab, creates new technological solutions to help people live better.

They asked: Does a monitoring system that has the same software NASA used to communicate with astronauts in space help improve medication compliance and good food habits? Does it also help people feel more connected socially?

To find out, researchers install a videoconferencing and touch-screen computer system in an older volunteer's kitchen to monitor eating and medication habits. The system sends data instantly to the volunteer's family's computer. The kids or grandkids can log on to see if Mom took her medications and leave messages ("What did you have for breakfast today? I had oatmeal"), upload family photos or have a nightly video chat.

They found: Videoconferencing in the kitchen helps ensure residents take their medication on time and encourages eating and socializing. It also reinforces researchers' belief that older adults will embrace technology if it provides value.

Sally Abrahms writes about boomers and aging. Her caregiving blog can be found at blog.aarp.org/author/aarpsally. Follow her on Twitter @sallyabrahms and at sallyabrahms.com.

You may also like: MIT AgeLab connects the generations.

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