Technological advances ease complications of aging

Judith Graham

About Judith Graham

Judith Graham (@judith_graham), is a freelance journalist based in Denver and former topic leader on aging for AHCJ. She haswritten for the New York Times, Kaiser Health News, the Washington Post, the Journal of the American Medical Association, STAT News, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications.

The future of services for our aging population will be shaped by the future of technology.

A small example of this important trend appeared last week in a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article by Jane Applegate. She wrote about a new line of walking shoes outfitted with GPS devices that can help track older people with dementia:

“This December, Aetrex (Worldwide, a specialty shoe manufacturer based in Teaneck, N.J.) and GTX (based in Los Angeles) launched the Aetrex Navistar GPS Footwear System, a $300 walking shoe with GTX’s GPS transmitter and receiver embedded in the right heel. Caregivers go online to create a virtual fence – a zone around the person’s residence – and pay Aetrex about $39 a month to receive alerts when the wearer leaves the area. If Grandma does leave, her location will be visible as long as where she goes has cellular coverage …”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago, 60 percent of the 5.4 million Americans dealing with the debilitating disease tend to run away or wander during its last stages. The market for technology designed to assist seniors is expected to reach $20 billion by 2020, according to Laurie Orlov, founder of research firm Aging in Place Technology Watch.”

Orlov’s website is a good resource for reporters looking for trends and insight. Not surprisingly, products and services that help people age in place, which The Miami Herald examined in a recent article, are a major focus.

This business segment spans everything from electronic pill boxes to in-home sensors that track an older person’s movements around the house and send an alert if something seems suspicious. See this New York Times article from 2009 (eons ago in technology time!) for more perspective on the trend.

General Electric Co. and Intel Corp. hope to be leaders in this field and formed a collaboration two years ago to accelerate their efforts. See this article from The Wall Street Journal for more details.

With technology, homebound seniors may find new ways to take advantage of services that otherwise might not be readily accessible. In New York City, Microsoft has partnered with two city agencies and a nonprofit organization to test a “virtual senior center” that connects seniors via computer and video technology with yoga, tai chi, and art classes.

For a look at how social media platforms like Facebook are addressing the same problem – isolation among seniors and the need for social interaction – see this August 2011 article from The Atlantic.

As always, skepticism is in order for reporters writing about businesses trying to sell products to older people and their families – a market segment that’s attracting enormous interest as the Baby Boomers cross the threshold from middle age into older age.

Be sure to ask for evidence proving that products work as promised. Are there studies that demonstrate this? Were studies sponsored by the company trying to sell the product or conducted by independent researchers? If studies exist and claim success, what measure do they use to support this? What time period was looked at in the study?

If the company suggests you talk to an early adopter of their technology, find out if this organization has a financial arrangement with the company. Were they paid to participate in a technology trial?

MIT’s Age Lab is another good source of information for stories about aging and technology. One innovation worth noting is the lab’s AGNES suit, which simulates the effects of aging – compromised vision and balance, reduced flexibility – when people put it on. (AGNES stands for Age Gain Now Empathy System.) It’s one of several systems designed to help companies understand the needs and concerns of older consumers. See a video about AGNES here.

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