A New Breed of Tech for the Aging

As the boomer generation moves toward retirement, companies are stepping up with innovative aids

This year, the eldest baby boomers turned 60, leading a charge of 75 million Americans who will pass the mark over the next two decades. Businesses in the market of senior-citizen products and services are already noting that this generation is healthier, more affluent, and more comfortable with technology than elderly citizens who came before them.

"Boomers are going to represent the first generation that has grown up around technology," says Russell Bodoff, executive director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST, agingtech.org), a national coalition established in 2003. CAST is made up of more than 400 technology companies, aging-services organizations, research universities, and government representatives. "This is also a demanding generation which prides itself on trying to remain as young as possible for as long as possible, so there's gong to be more of an expectation of technology to meet their needs."

Bodoff says the community of individuals and organizations represented by CAST are preparing for a wave of innovation over the next 10 to 20 years to meet the growing needs of this market.

MIT AgeLab, a research program started in 1999 by the school's Engineering Systems Division, develops innovations based on the anticipated convergence of baby boomer expectations and advancing technology. AgeLab has received sponsorships from such businesses as Procter & Gamble (PG), the AARP, and Philips Medical Systems.

Demanding Pets

"Boomers aren't just going to accept old age, they will look to other businesses not traditionally in the health-care field to provide for them," says AgeLab Director Joseph Coughlin. "For these businesses, it's not a matter of fulfilling needs as much as wants. They want to remain engaged in society, and most are reporting that they want to continue working into old age."

Coughlin adds that technology to promote greater independence and better health for senior citizens has existed for several years—the challenge is introducing it to their lifestyle in a social and emotional context. One of the lab's simplest yet most promising projects, Pill Pets, are stuffed animals with LCD screens that remind their owners when it's time to take a pill or go to the doctor. If the senior fails to report back to the Pill Pet after performing that task, the creature will simulate sickness or death, prompting an emotional response.

Automotive technologies are also a top priority for AgeLab, because seniors equate driving with freedom and independence. The lab's prototype Aware Car is equipped with warning systems to help control speed and monitor the distance of oncoming traffic. It also helps drivers make left-hand turns, and it tailors airbag deployment and steering wheel placement to people of smaller stature, who may have osteoporosis. The AgeLab has worked with Toyota (TM) Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford (F), DaimlerChrysler (DCX), and Fiat to find the best ways to incorporate these innovations into production vehicles in the near future.

Auto-Focus Specs

An end to bifocals may be in sight for aging boomers, thanks to University of Arizona professors of optical sciences Nasser Peyghambarian and Guoqiang Li. In April, 2006, they unveiled their prototype switchable focus eyeglass lens, created with two pieces of flat glass separated by a layer of liquid crystal. When charged with 1.8 volts of electricity, a change in the orientation of the liquid crystals alters the optical path taken through the lens.

Currently, the glasses must be manually switched to alter focus, but within the next five years, the researchers say an auto-focus lens using similar technology will be possible. A company called Pixel Optics in Roanoke, Va., is developing the lenses for consumer use.

Intel (INTC) has gotten the message that as baby boomers age, there will be a widening market for commercial solutions to health care. Their Proactive Health Research unit is developing a number of technological tools which will help the "sandwich generation" care for their aging parents as they enter old age themselves.

Unobtrusive Inventions

The group's manager, Eric Dishman, says Intel is focused on removing the stigma from technology products designed to help the elderly. "Assistive technologies have always made you feel old and sick. They didn't look like cool electronics, they looked like medical equipment," he says. "[Future] systems will be cool and hip, and they won't broadcast to the world 'I'm sick.'"

The Presence Lamp is a simple, unobtrusive way for boomers to monitor their parent's well being. Motion sensors in their home and their parent's home send an alert to the corresponding lamp, which lights up as each party returns home. Further along in its development, the lamp will relay more specific information about location within the home by lighting different colors.

"The Presence Lamp is really cheap and trivial [in terms of technology], but for the people in our study, it was magical," says Dishman. "They reported an increased quality of communication." Boomers in the study initially expressed concern that their parents would call them several times a day if they knew they were home, but the device functioned more as a means of reassurance than as an intercom.

Protecting Privacy

The biggest challenge for researchers in this field is to create products which provide seniors with assistance without compromising their independence or dignity. Sophisticated surveillance technologies which already exist can record movements throughout their home and report them back to their caretaker—but is that information they want to divulge? A debate has emerged.

"We need to always keep [privacy concerns] in mind, but there's also a great potential for technology to enhance independence and dignity," says Henry Kautz, a professor in the University of Rochester's computer-science dept.

"Today, one of the major factors that determines whether an elderly person enters a nursing home is incontinence," he points out. "Incontinence can be controlled by prompting the person to go to the bathroom at regular intervals. Technology that discretely provided such prompts would help many people extend the length of time they can continue to live in their own homes." Hopefully, it all adds up to better—and longer—living through assistive technology.

Click here to see a slide show of tech products for baby boomers.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.