Friday, June 27, 2008

Supportive Technology and Design for Healthy Aging

This week, the University of Washington's Institute on Aging hosted the third conference focused on technology for our aging population. The numbers you know: 10% of the world's population was over age 60 in 2002. By 2050, 21% will be over the age of 60. (I'll hopefully be there, too)
By 2025, 1.2 BILLION people will be over age 60. Sixty seems to be a very random magic number. I will pause here to say that from my life and my research, 80 is the new 60. Frailness and serious decline are more prevalent.

Nevertheless, we are a more crowded planet and people all over the world are living longer, hopefully healthier lives. Technology can help people stay in their own homes longer by offering physiological feedback, memory assistance, aids for socialization and sharing this data with family and health care professionals as needed.

One interesting theme was living spaces. There is a push to move towards new models. Lydia Lundberg of Elite Care here in Portland shared its unique set up. While residents have private rooms, they are in townhouses, not high rises or buildings with hundreds of people. They are in shared homes. They take meals together in small groups in a local kitchen. Small residences also avoid walks down long halls for already frail individuals. Residents are asked to wear an RFID tag that captures their location. There are no gates, but wanderers with Alzheimer's are usually stopped by a sprinkler system that turns on if they veer off campus. Family members can check in through a portal on their loved one(s) to see their level of activity, time spent in bed, weight, and other vital stats. It's a great view to the nursing home of the future.

Victor Regnier March discussed his research on housing for the elderly in Europe. After his presentation, we had a conversation about intergenerational housing, a concept that seems remarkably undeveloped in this country. Co-housing allows like minded people to live cooperatively and make group choices on their communal living spaces. When elderly residents live in these arrangements, the upside is that their neighbors are not all over 70. The downside is that because they are often retired or working fewer hours, they are expected to do the less desirable work. Resentment builds and the community is at odds. Generally, intergenerational housing seems like a fantastic idea, done well at the Natalie Salmon House in Chicago where students and seniors live side by side. Students get reduced rent and a grandparent figure, since many don't have grandparents or are living far away. Seniors get some liveliness and able bodied neighbors as well as meal and healthcare assistance. The idea of college, pre-school and mixed age housing should be a natural, but in the U.S. especially, we seem to feel the need to push all of the elderly into a corner and ask them to live together.

Two final talks focused on robots as assistive technology for the elderly. Maja Mataric and Jim Osborn discussed how robots and robotics can assist the elderly with everything from socialization to facial recognition. Maja talked at length about how robots were used to motivate individuals to participate in therapy and promote generative play. She also talked about the research pairing people with "like minded" robots, that is a more "extroverted" robot with a more extroverted person. This match made for a stronger attachment and led to a longer engagement in key activities. Though the robots are not due on the market any time soon, the research should be used as a resource for those making brain games and interactive web sites for seniors.
More on Day 2 tomorrow...

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