Seniors will accept newfangled gadgets, as long as they come in familiar packages.
The key, researchers say, is to make assistive technologies easy to use and familiar. The devices must also increase seniors’ independence.
A telephone might check a person’s pulse or glucose levels, for example. A toilet, as some already do, can check waste for signs of disease.
“We don’t have to make everything from whole cloth,” said Eric Dishman, chair of the Applications, Interfaces and Media Health subcommittee, which is part of Intel’s Research Council. “There’s a lot we can do by finding new uses for old technology.”
Aging baby boomers might happily adapt to a wireless phone-based system that helps them navigate public transportation systems using artificial intelligence, for example. Mobility for All, part of the cognitive levers project, known as Clever, at the University of Colorado, will put cognitively impaired people on the right local bus by combining GPS and wireless technology with Java-enabled smart phones that have high-resolution displays.
Many seniors, of course, would rather drive. But elderly drivers surveyed by General Motors complain they have trouble getting into cars and seeing through the windshield. Another problem, said GM research engineer Brian Repa, is that older people get lost more easily.
“A large number of seniors’ traffic accidents and citations are caused by inappropriately slow driving, and failing to notice signs and objects in the road. Many of these behaviors are probably caused by trouble with navigation,” Repa said.
New navigation systems, with only a few buttons and commands, may help older drivers stay on course.
“But we’ll also want to lock out many navigation tasks while the car is moving,” Repa said.
Researchers admit that technology can’t fix all seniors’ problems. People age differently, and an assistive technology must get smarter as a person’s functioning declines.
“We’ve got to make systems that are highly customizable,” said Martha Pollack, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan. “The one-size-fits-all systems we deal with every day are not going to work with elders. We want to reduce their cognitive load, not add to it.”
Pollack is programming the AI brain behind Nursebot, a robot that provides both cognitive and motor support to seniors. Nursing-home residents can lean on Nursebot as the machine walks them down long corridors, responds to their questions and reminds them about appointments.
But the robot, a group project with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, can’t climb stairs. It probably couldn’t even roll over the edge of some carpets.
Pollack would rather leave Nursebot at the nursing home, and transplant only the robot’s brain into seniors’ apartments and houses. Nursebot’s AI system would gather data from sensors scattered throughout the home, and help patients and their caregivers make health-care decisions.
Robots, complained nurses and sociologists at a recent workshop on technology for elders, are lousy substitutes for human companionship: They’re dumb and inflexible, and they can break down easily. But when a robotic kitten named Max arrived, he seemed to melt the hearts of a few robot skeptics.
Max, which was built by Omron out of Tokyo, is quite lifelike, with sensors that trigger catlike responses – including 48 different cat sounds – with a touch or voice cue. Omron only built 500 Maxes last year, according to Elena Libin, project director at the Institute of Robotic Psychology and Robotherapy in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
The institute studies “robotherapy,” which its website defines as the use of person-to-person interactions “to create new positive experiences.” Libin is studying the mood-altering effects Max has on seniors with dementia.
Libin conceded, however, that Max might not last a day in a nursing home among hordes of adoring seniors. “It’s quite expensive (at about $1,500), and with all of its sensors, the robot is very delicate.”