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Technology becomes friendlier to older generations

A growing array of products and services are made with seniors' needs and preferences in mind.

December 20, 2009|By Michelle Maltais
  • Maxim Batalin is among researchers putting accelerometers and gyroscopes in canes and shoes to monitor users' balance and help them learn how to avoid falls.
Maxim Batalin is among researchers putting accelerometers and gyroscopes… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

She was the ultimate all-American mom from the 1970s raising six kids on TV, but when it came to learning how to use her cellphone to send text messages, she avoided asking her own tech-savvy children.


FOR THE RECORD:
Technology for seniors: An article in the Dec. 20 Business section about high-tech products and services for seniors said Linked Senior, a company that provides MP3 players and content to retirement communities, was launched in June. The company was founded in 2006. The story also said the service was currently available in 14 retirement communities. It is now available in about 30 facilities. —

"I didn't want to see them rolling their eyes," said Florence Henderson, best known for playing Carol Brady, the sitcom mom on "The Brady Bunch."

The 75-year-old actress "was always very afraid of anything technical like that," and instead of seeking help from her children, she got a three-minute lesson from a business associate. She now has no problem with texting and regularly video chats with her granddaughter in St. Louis.

The experience, which Henderson described as empowering, led her to launch a senior service in October that provides technical advice and guidance without making the tech neophyte feel rushed, dismissed or embarrassed.

"For those of us who didn't grow up with computers, it's like learning a new language," said Henderson, who prides herself on staying vibrant and up to date. "When I realized it was all passing me by, I was really upset about that."

Despite the challenge of learning a new language and a new way of doing things, for many seniors, using the Web, e-mailing, Skyping the grandkids, playing video games and tapping out Facebook updates from their iPhones have become everyday activities.

"As each year passes by, the demographic starts getting more and more comfortable with the technology," said Howard Byck, senior vice president for lifestyle products for AARP.

And technology appears to be getting more comfortable going a little gray too. Entrepreneurs and researchers are stepping up developing products and services for seniors, including high-tech walking canes with gyroscopes and Internet-based services that encourage social networking.

In October, the UCLA Center on Aging held its second Technology and Aging Conference at the Skirball Cultural Center, highlighting how technology can contribute to healthy aging. Topics included brain-sharpening games and exer-gaming, a way to use video systems such as the Nintendo Wii to exercise.

Next month the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, one of the world's biggest showcase for high-tech gadgets, will feature a daylong series of sessions called the Silvers Summit, focusing on new tech products and services for boomers and seniors.

"You know, there's no turning back," Henderson said. "Technology is here."

Here's a look at several upcoming products and services designed for seniors:

Finding balance

Even canes and shoes, items that appear to employ no technology, are getting smarter.

A team of researchers at UCLA's programWireless Health has fitted these walking aids with accelerometers and gyroscopes -- devices that were developed for fighter jets and missiles but are now in smart phones.

The canes and shoes would be used to monitor balance and teach users how to walk safely and avoid falling. Sensors inside can also transmit data in real time to doctors and caretakers who keep track of the user's mobility. The canes and shoes are still in the testing phase, but developers hope to have them on the market early next year.

Program research manager Maxim Batalin said the devices could assist with monitoring outpatient rehabilitation for stroke survivors. They "enable us to tell exactly what kind of activity the person is doing and to predict how much that activity has changed," he said.

Items that adapt

Engineers at the Quality of Life Technology Center, a joint venture between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, are developing devices that adapt to their users. Among them is the Lean and Zoom, computer software that magnifies what's on the screen when a user naturally leans in to see it. It works with the computer's video camera to determine the user's position; the closer a person leans, the more it zooms.

The software, which will be Mac- and PC-compatible, is expected to hit the market by March with a price tentatively in the $20 range, said Curt Stone, director of the program that is commercializing products.

In late 2010, the center hopes to offer another device: personal navigation that's intuitive.

NavPrescience learns how you drive and, unlike most personal navigation devices, applies that information to map out a better path according to your past driving behavior. It would, for instance, avoid left turns if it has learned that you prefer to turn right only.

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