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Elder care goes high tech

Games, monitors and robots are among the tools being tested to help aging people live in their homes as long as possible, while lowering risks to their health and safety.

June 17, 2011|By Walter Hamilton, Los Angeles Times
  • Tracy Zitzelberger at Oregon Health & Science University shows the videoconferencing capabilities of a 4-foot robot known as Celia.
Tracy Zitzelberger at Oregon Health & Science University shows the… (Benjamin Reed, For The Times )

Reporting from Beaverton, Ore. — Dorothy Rutherford is anxiously typing at her home computer, filling in answers to an online spelling game.

"I hate it when I can't get this last word," the 86-year-old retiree says as she studies the jumbled letters "nadobna." Rutherford tries "banana," then "bandana," to no avail. She smiles broadly when the computer beeps its approval of "abandon" a few moments later.

Rutherford isn't just whiling away the hours in retirement. She is on the front lines of an initiative to help elderly Americans stay in their homes as long as they can — a concept called aging in place.

Gerontologists say aging in place vastly improves the quality of life for seniors and is a lot cheaper for society than group homes and institutions.

The trick is to do so without jeopardizing the health and safety of older people, which is why Rutherford is playing the word jumble game. The results of the game, as well as typos and even the intervals between keystrokes, are monitored for abnormalities that could foreshadow physical or mental infirmity.

She is one of 480 people taking part in several pilot programs in Portland, Ore., that outfit homes with technology so elderly people can be monitored for illness or infirmity.

The studies are being conducted by the Oregon Center for Aging & Technology at Oregon Health & Science University, with partial funding from Intel Corp. With the first wave of baby boomers turning 65 this year, corporations such as Intel see lucrative new business opportunities tending to a generation of people accustomed to doing things their own way.

"This is a race to see who's going to invent 21st century care services for boomers," said Eric Dishman, health policy director at Intel-GE Care Innovations, a joint venture that Intel formed this year with General Electric Co. "Worldwide, there's this enormous market opportunity."

To that end, Rutherford's two-bedroom condominium has been outfitted with an array of electronic monitoring gear that might eventually find its way to retail shelves — all of it light years away from those rudimentary medical-alert necklaces advertised in an endless loop of TV commercials.

Motion sensors along hallways and ceilings record her gait and walking speed. A monitor on her back door observes when she leaves the house, and another one on the refrigerator keeps tabs on how often she's eating.

A few months ago, the former waitress even tested a robot with a Skype-like video monitor that lets faraway relatives check on loved ones.

Rutherford's granddaughter Katie Cooper piloted "Celia" from home in rural Wyoming, steering the machine — shaped like a 4-foot paper clip on wheels — around Rutherford's house as they spoke.

At first, Cooper struggled to control Celia, bumping the robot into tables and running over a shopping bag. But she got the hang of it quickly.

"My grandmother's furniture hasn't changed in 20 years. I knew the layout of the house," she said. "Anybody who's ever played a video game would have no problem using this."

The equipment in Rutherford's home is monitored by researchers at the Oregon lab, which was established in 2004 and developed most of the gear.

The lab includes a "model home" to test new gadgets. One is a special bed laced with sensors to assess breathing patterns, heart rate and general sleep quality. If someone lying on the bed holds a breath for a few seconds, the computer monitor flashes "subject has stopped breathing."

A pill box fitted with electronic switches records when medication is taken. And a Wii video game system has been rejiggered so that players stand on a platform that measures their weight and balance.

More is on the drawing board at the Oregon tech lab and elsewhere: software to help dementia patients find their way home if they get lost, devices that interpret facial expressions for signs of depression and robotic "pets" that have lifelike interactions with seniors.

For it all to catch on, however, major obstacles must be overcome. Among the biggest are persuading families to shell out several hundred dollars or more for sensors, and monthly monitoring fees that can top $100. Neither Medicaid nor most private insurance policies cover these expenses, said Dr. Jeffrey Kaye, director of the Oregon aging and tech lab.

Another roadblock is awareness: By the time families find out about this technology, their elders may already be in need of direct supervised care, Kaye said.

And some companies market products to home-healthcare agencies that care for the homebound population, rather than directly to seniors themselves.

"Aging in place is starting to hit a tipping point, but we now need to make it mainstream enough where it's not something you find at the doctor's office or have to do lots of research on over the Web," said Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab.

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