10 Ways Tech Makes Old Age Easier

With their populations aging rapidly in coming decades, many countries, including the U.S., will rely heavily on technology to take care of seniors

Taizo the robot gets seniors to exercise.
Taizo the robot gets seniors to exercise. Photo courtesy of General Robotix

Yesterday the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, as it had 32 times before, voted to repeal what’s become known as Obamacare. There is no chance the Democratic Senate will follow suit.

So, until the November election, it looks like health care at the national level will pretty much live in the Land of Swirling Rhetoric and Symbolic Gestures.

This is unfortunate because it’s a slice of our future that’s pockmarked with some ugly realities. Here’s a personal favorite: Two years ago, more than 40 million people 65 years or older lived in the U.S. By mid-century, more than twice that many people–roughly 88 million–will be that old. That’s one out of every five Americans.

In other countries, particularly in Europe, it will be even worse, with a stunningly high percentage of their populations expected to be on the downhill side of 60. In Spain, 37 percent of the people will be that old. In Japan, it will be even higher, maybe as high as 43 percent.

No question that a whole lot more people in the world are going to need help taking care of themselves. Which is why there’s a big push now to see how much of that load can be handled by technology–from wearable sensors to helper robots.

Here are 10 tech tools that are making it easier for old folks to avoid spending their final years in nursing homes:

1) One day we will all be Kinected: Researchers at the University of Missouri are testing to see if they can use Kinect motion sensors—yes, the ones originally designed for xBox games–to monitor elderly residents in another state. This is considered less intrusive than using actual video cameras since they’d be seeing only silhouette images. The system’s already being used at an independent living facility near the Missouri campus; now, with the help of a National Science Foundation grant, the scientists are going to see how well it works in keeping in touch with old people in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

2) But there’s still no curmudgeon meter: They were introduced in Japan two years ago and now wireless sensors that attach to your chest and track heart beat, body surface temperature, stress levels and movements have a good chance of becoming a standard part of the senior wardrobe. All that data, gathered on what’s called a “human recorder system,” is then transmitted to a mobile phone or PC.

3) A bed that gets up with you: Here’s another invention from Japan, where already more than 20 percent of the population is over 65. Panasonic has developed a bed that easily converts into a wheelchair so that an elderly person can become mobile without actually having to get up out of bed. But Panasonic hasn’t stopped there. It also has created a robot that shampoos and blow-dries your hair. As yet, it doesn’t give advice.

4) Smell the virtual grapes: You can’t expect seniors to do a lot of cycling in traffic, but those trying to stay in shape by using stationary bikes can get bored pretty quickly. A study in Schenectady, New York earlier this year, though, found that elderly people not only were more likely to get back on the bike if they had virtual reality images of France or California or outer space in front of them, but also that the faux scenery kept their brains sharper.

5) The nurse is always in: It’s not exactly a magic pendant, but Nurse Alert can do a pretty decent job of protecting people. The device, which you can wear around your neck or carry in your pocket, gives you 24-hour access to nurses. There’s an emergency button that connects a person directly to a monitoring center and also a non-emergency button that patches you through to a “Nurse Triage Call Center.” Another feature can detect if the person with the pendant falls down. It automatically alerts the nurse center. If the person doesn’t respond to a nurse, emergency crews are called.

6) Robots with helper people: Now here’s a different spin on outsourcing. Willow Garage, a California robotics company, is exploring the idea of having human workers remotely help robots take care of elderly people. Called the Heaphy Project, it would involve having a person remotely control a robot using just a Web browser. Say an elderly person dropped something; the worker, who could be on the other side of the planet, would be able to see what happened through a video feed, then guide the robot to pick it up.

7) Only my phone really knows me: It wasn’t designed specifically for seniors, but a new Android-based smartphone called LifeWatch V will be able to help them let their doctors know how they’re doing between checkups. By holding his finger over sensors on the phone, a person can get an electrocardiogram reading or data on their stress levels, heart rate, body fat and temperature. The phone can also be used to help diabetics monitor their blood sugar levels. All of the info is automatically stored in the cloud and can easily be forwarded to a doctor’s office.

8) But he doesn’t do zumba: When you’re 80, you’re not looking for buff in a fitness instructor. So who cares if Taizo the robot looks like the the Michelin Man after bariatric surgery? Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology and a spin-off called General Robotix created the small humanoid bot a few years ago to lead classes of seniors in stretching and light exercises. He can bust 30 moves.

9) Beware of cuteness overload: While we’re talking robots, you can’t leave out Kabochan, a doll-like robot that’s been a big hit with elderly folks in Japan since it went on the market late last year. It’s modeled after a three-year-old boy–one that knows 400 phrases, responds to light, sound and movement and never throws a fit. What’s not to like?

10) Your memory cheat sheet: When people talk about Google glasses, no one mentions old people. But can you imagine how much sweeter old age could be if you never had to worry about remembering a name or place or anything else? Who needs a memory when you can augment reality?

Video bonus: Here’s a demo clip of Kabochan, the little robot doll that’s become so popular among seniors in Japan. Be prepared, though, it may make you very afraid of your future.

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