Monday, February 22, 2010

New Computer Technologies Help Elderly People Stay Independent

Thanks to a wide array of new computer technologies, the quality of life is improving for millions of seniors in the United States, without them having to give up their independence.

According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, based in San Francisco, there are an estimated 22.4 million households involved in giving care to people age 50 and older. These baby boomers, most of whom balance the schedules of two working parents with raising kids, are stressed to the maximum and appreciate any assistance they can find to help them take care of their parents and improve the quality of life for everyone. Computer technology companies see an opportunity to help them do just that, while taking the strain off the nation’s limited, expensive long-term care resources. The strain on long-term care services for the elderly is a global problem. From 1900 to 1997, the number of elderly people in the U.S. increased from 3.1 million to 34.1 million—an eleven-fold increase—while the total population only tripled. And projections show that the elderly populations of the U.S. will more than double to about 79 million by 2050, according to the Population Resource Center. Within the next few years, 50% of the European Union's population will be over 65, and in Italy, retirees will outnumber active workers by 2030.

Companies such as ADT, Honeywell, General Electric, Intel, and Phillips Medical Systems are actively pursuing the demographic of middle-aged people concerned about helping their parents ease into their twilight years with less guilt and more peace of mind than they would have if they moved their parents to assisted-living facilities. They are developing a variety of computerized systems for seniors, and such technology is an answered prayer for many people. One such solution is the ADT Quietcare system, a home-monitoring system that employs motion and temperature detectors to record the daily activity of seniors living on their own. Twelve times a day, the Quietcare system updates the status of the monitored individual into a central monitoring site, where loved ones can check up on them via the Internet and respond if anything goes awry. According to Nancy Chisholm, western regional Vice President of ADT, "I think (the technology) has tremendous potential. With the rising cost of health care, this really is a cost-effective solution for adult caretakers."

ADT’s system was first used by living Independently, Inc., in New York, for the nursing home industry. It was introduced to the consumer market by ADT just a few months ago. The monitoring system works in conjunction with a computerized pendant worn around a person’s neck to alert caregivers of a problem. The system costs about $299 to activate, and a $90 monthly fee pays for the monitoring. Five sensors, each about the size of a small cell phone, are installed in a home—in the individual’s bathroom, outside the bathroom, outside the bedroom, on the refrigerator door, and near the medicine cabinet. Another sensor monitors room temperature throughout the house. The sensors use wireless technology to send information to a base station near the telephone, and the information is transmitted over the phone line to Living Independently. After a baseline of normal behavior is developed, the computers in the monitoring center can chart daily activities such as a client’s ordinary waking time, number of kitchen visits, and time spent in the bathroom.

After the first week, the system can issue an alert if there is any change in the pattern that may indicate a problem. For example, if a senior fails to visit the medicine cabinet during the day, or goes to the bathroom and doesn’t come out within an hour, an alert will be activated through ADT’s customer service center. In response to the alert, an ADT representative calls the home to check on the client, and if necessary, then calls the family and finally emergency medical services. It may seem like this kind of close monitoring is an invasion of privacy, but according to Mark Cross, team manager for Quietcare Plus, people are usually happy to hear from them. "The customer has a sense of not being alone—that's the feedback we get. But it can be challenging at times," he added. "Every single alarm we get can be a medical emergency. Thirty percent of them are." One surprising advantage to the close monitoring is that it gives family members more things to talk about when they share the caregiving responsibilities.

ADT isn't the only company developing technology to keep seniors out of nursing homes. The Rhode Island School of Design, EDS, and MIT are working together to develop Pill Pet, which is reminiscent of the virtual Tamagotchi pet of the 1990s that was designed to teach children responsibility. If the owner of the small toy didn’t care for the pet appropriately, they had to suffer the consequences. With the Pill Pet, a fuzzy palm-sized toy animal, if the senior "owner" takes his or her medications regularly and on time, the toy lives. If not, the pet must be taken to a pharmacy for attention. The MIT Media Lab is currently testing the reactions of seniors to see if they like the idea of adopting a computerized pet to let it help them manage their health. Proctor & Gamble is working on a smart personal adviser, invented at MIT, that is a combination of Palm Pilot technology and a medical smart card. When a shopper goes to the grocery store with the personal advisor, he would scan a card containing his medical record into a Palm Pilot and it would record his current health condition. As his groceries are scanned, the adviser would note items that are not recommended for his medical condition, and suggest more appropriate alternative choices.

The system that is perhaps the most scientifically advanced is the Motiva television set-top box, created by Philips Medical System. The box is linked to medical devices and a remote control in the patient’s home to keep daily track of their blood pressure and weight. The information is sent wirelessly through the set-top box to doctors, and patients fill out on-screen questionnaires using a specially designed remote control. Doctors on the receiving end review the information and send out personalized responses to televisions, thereby giving patients daily feedback about their health status. A recent trial by 30 congestive heart failure patients was a resounding success, and both patients and doctors were pleased with the results of the study.

These new products and others in development will help to improve the quality of life for millions of seniors in the United States while allowing them to maintain their independence. With the rapidly expanding pace of computer technology, these new products are probably just the tip of the iceberg.

By: Linda Orlando

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