Imagine rolling out of bed in the morning and dragging your sleepy self to the bathroom sink. You glance in the mirror, wince, open the medicine cabinet, and reach for a bottle of pills. But instead of grabbing your Lipitor, you take out the Tylenol with codeine. Suddenly a computerized voice tells you that you're making a mistake. That should wake you up -- and get you to reach for the right container.
Far-fetched as this scenario sounds, technology-services company Accenture (ACN ) is developing a talking medicine cabinet to help older people manage their medications and keep track of their vital signs. While it's still several years away from the consumer market, a prototype was on display at the White House Conference on Aging in Washington in December.
Other smart high-tech products, either on sale now or in the research phase, are changing the way Americans cope with the health issues of aging family members. The devices can help people better monitor and treat their chronic diseases, provide quick access to reliable medical information in an emergency, and make a private residence safe enough for an older person to continue living there.
Take the E-HealthKEY, which became available last fall. It can store a person's medical history, prescription drug lists, contact names and numbers, and medical-test reports on a chip embedded in a rectangular unit small enough to fit on a keychain. In an emergency, medics plug the key into the USB port of a computer to access the information. The gadget, sold by MedicAlert Foundation International in Turlock, Calif., which also markets identification bracelets and pendants, costs $84.95 plus $20 a year for connection to an emergency response center (medicalert.org).
LIKE A BURGLAR ALARM
The E-Neighbor system builds on the technology used in home security systems. It consists of wireless sensors programmed to detect unusual activity in a senior's house or apartment. If the shower runs for several hours, for example, or the refrigerator stays closed all day, the system "calls the person to ask if he or she is O.K. If the person does not respond, the system can call or send an e-mail alert to someone else, such as an adult child or health-care provider," explains Richard Barnett, a principal at Healthsense, the Mendota Heights (Minn.) company that plans to market E-Neighbor starting in May. The initial cost to wire and equip a private residence will be about $300, plus about $20 a month to stay connected to an emergency call center.
To see how far such monitoring systems can go, consider the one Chris Langford uses to check up on his 70-year-old diabetic mother, Mary, at Oatfield Estates, a senior residence in Milwaukie, Ore. When he logs on to his computer, he sees a diagram of the floor where his mom lives and an icon showing exactly where she is at that moment. By clicking on screen tabs, he has access to everything from her blood pressure readings to a list of visitors she has had lately. A wireless "help" button Mary wears around her neck signals her location. Medical staffers transmit her vital signs and other data across the network. If Chris notices a pattern or event, such as a fall, that worries him, he can call the staff.
Mary has lived at Oatfield for nearly a year since her diabetes worsened and memory loss undermined her ability to care for herself. She gave Chris permission to use the monitoring system, and the access it affords has relieved much of his anxiety about her well-being. Oatfield owners Lydia Lundberg and Bill Reed are marketing their proprietary system to other senior residences, but it's not yet available for individual families.
Researchers also are perfecting in-home devices that monitor the weight, blood pressure, and other vital signs of seniors with chronic diseases and send a report to doctors or caregivers. One example is Health Hero Network's Health Buddy, currently available only through medical providers. The 5-inch by 9-inch box is placed in the home and attached to, say, a weight scale or a blood-glucose monitor. Pushing buttons to answer questions that appear on a small display, the user can alert medical personnel to danger signs such as rapid weight loss.
SENSORS WHILE YOU SLEEP
With a "smart" bed developed at the University of Virginia's Medical Automation Research Center in Charlottesville, a patient need only lie down to check and transmit medical information. Expected to be called the NAPS bed, for non-invasive analysis of physiological signals, it has wireless sensors that measure pulse rate, breathing, and restlessness. Steve Kell, a robotics-lab specialist at the center, says he sees the bed going on sale for about $1,000 by the end of 2006. But "to be effective, there should be a caregiver in the loop" who can read and interpret the data, he says.
Does this sound like an invasion of privacy? Stephen Agritelly, director of Intel's (INTC ) health-systems research lab in Beaverton, Ore., says Intel studies show that many seniors will accept monitoring and prompting devices "when you take data that comes from a sensor network and feed it back in a way that helps them."
For Langford, using Oatfield's system is a no-brainer since it's not intrusive and may prevent his mother from wandering. "It's not like they have a camera on her. They just need to know where she is," he says. "I hope when I get to be her age, if I ever get into her situation, they know where I am and how to find me."
By Ellen Hoffman