Researchers brainstorm on future technologies for aging

Tracking and Monitoring movements of people with Alzheimer's was the focus of a recent conference in Seattle. The hope is that people (and concerned families) can maintain and extend their individual freedoms as they age by enabling third parties to remotely monitor their activities. This is also an area of interest for CAST and its sponsor Intel, a Washington D.C. association we are part of. It is even suggested that monitoring the gait of individuals as they walk can reveal cognitive decline, or at least provide a suggestion that cognitive monitoring might be necessary. In that case, Memory For Life provides the solution...

Tan Vinh, Seattle Times

By the end of the decade, Global Positioning System technology may allow Alzheimer's patients to travel alone, and house sensors that give verbal warnings to older persons may be as common as light switches.

Even the routine task of walking may tell doctors whether cognitive skills are deteriorating.

Those were among the findings presented yesterday by scientists and researchers at the "Gerontechnology Today and Tomorrow" conference at Swedish Medical Center, sponsored by the hospital and the University of Washington Institute on Aging.

With the pending new computer technology and gadgets, many older persons may avoid nursing homes and live independently or with a little assistance in the near future, many scholars said yesterday.

"There will be significant changes in five years," said Henry Kautz, UW professor of computer science and engineering. "We can't put everybody in nursing homes. There will be more and more of a trend to leave people in their own homes and [in] assisted-living homes."

Technology will play a big role in providing safety and independence for seniors, Kautz said.

Kautz is working on a cellphone with GPS reading that can guide users home if they get lost or ride the wrong bus.

A prototype called "Opportunity Knocks" has been designed and clinical tests may begin next year, said Kautz, who predicts the product will be on the market within five years.

Many researchers also think the concept of planting sensors around the home will be big. The sensors would remind seniors to check their blood pressure or to eat lunch.

At Oregon Health & Science University, researchers also are studying the use of house sensors to track seniors as they walk in their homes.

Because both cognitive thinking and walking require similar neural-network performance, said Misha Pavel, professor of biomedical engineering at Oregon Health & Science University, a slowed gait over a period of time may signal deteriorating cognitive skills.

Tracking walking speed with sensors may be a great way to catch cognitive decline in the early stages, he said.

Echoing the concerns of many in the audience, Patricia Jennings, who oversees nursing homes for the state Department of Social and Health Services, said 24-hour sensors raise privacy issues.

Eva Kahana, professor in the sociology department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said technology is fine "as long as the older person can remain in the driver's seat. I think we have to be careful about technology not being used to control other people or taking away their independence."

Pavel and his colleague, Holly Jimison, said the patient controls who gets the sensor data.

"Monitoring allows them more autonomy. Otherwise they would be in a nursing home," Jimison said

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