Senior Momentum

Can design and technology deliver a golden age of aging?

One of life's cruel ironies is that half of society is always dying to grow up while the other half begrudgingly grows ready to die. The halves used to balance out, with an ample labor pool of young people around to look after the elderly, who, likely as not, expired soon after retirement. But today it's impossible to escape the sobering news that seniors will not only double in number within two decades, they will also live much longer. In 2011, the first members of the baby boom generation will turn 65. If they survive another 20 years, which is highly possible, the ranks of what demographers call the "oldest old" will swell to epic proportions. Considering that today's seniors already compete for care, aging boomers face a radically compromised lifestyle—and society as a whole will suffer—unless we quickly develop economical ways to bridge the care gap.

Scared by the scenario? Then consider this for relief: The next decades may prove to be the first time in history when it will be really interesting, if not downright cool, to grow old, especially for technophiles. Since 2000, the global race to develop high-tech solutions for problems challenging the elderly has accelerated, particularly where critical shortages of caregivers already exist, as in Asia.

Japan, for instance, which leads industrialized nations in both the lowest birthrate and the largest population over the age of 65, is betting that innovative technologies and futuristic robotics can back up the dwindling labor supply. In 2004, Sanyo Electric's human washing machine received fanfare after testing well with elderly patients who appreciated its warm, sudsy massage just as much as one delivered by a living attendant.

Other Japanese products emphasize cuddliness and character. Paro is a robotic baby seal claimed by its inventor (AIST, the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology) to soothe anxious nursing-home patients as effectively as traditional pet therapy, without the allergens. Japanese cultural acceptance of lovable gadgetry has also inspired research in humanoid robots for assistance and companionship. Ri-Man by Riken is an interactive robot resembling a giant soft toy that's able to lift an incapacitated patient, sense smells, follow sounds, and track faces. Android research has produced two notable mechanical talking heads on static bodies: Repliee Q2, modeled after an actual female news broadcaster, and a male crafted to resemble its inventor, Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of Osaka University's Intelligent Robotics Laboratory. Watching footage of Ishiguro's automated twin recoil from a poke in the face is fascinating yet repellent, as is its response—"Don't touch! Don't touch!"

Advanced product research is under way in this country as well, supported by organizations such as the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST), a Washington, D.C.–based coalition of more than 400 public and private members that lobbies for greater industry visibility and influence. While some projects in development target seniors' special needs, others emphasize more universal application across generations (see sidebar, p. 87, on GE's new kitchen appliances). Otherwise, hints of our technological future already proliferate. Two million affordable iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaners now propel their way around living rooms to the delight of couch potatoes and those with impaired mobility. Considering that the MIT roboticists who created Roomba also developed the PackBot Tactical Mobile Robot now deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's hope they'll eventually program the vacuum to do stairs.

A plethora of new technologies used in hospitals also benefits seniors. To relieve overtaxed nurses of nonessential tasks, Aethon developed Tug, a robotic indoor transport system that hooks up to a tracking device called Homer. In 2006, ABC News broadcast a box-like Tug whirling down a hospital hall, startling people as it passed by on the way to deliver supplies. One woman, realizing the Tug was self-propelled, suggested making it look more like a robot out of science fiction: "Put a head and a neck on him, you know, with some glowing eyes."

In 2004, USA Today reported on a robot produced by the California company InTouch Health that really does have glowing eyes—in the form of a video screen "head" mounted on a mobile base that televises a doctor's diagnosis. This RP-7 "rounding robot" links off-site specialists with staff doctors at 21 Michigan hospitals around the clock. A study by Johns Hopkins University found that 50 percent of patients would prefer a remote examination by their own physician via robo-doc technology than an encounter with a doctor they don't know.

Ethnographic research confirms that a senior's relationship to products changes with age. Loneliness intensifies, so anything that provides social and emotional support may become important if human contact is in short supply. For families separated by distance, Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute is refining a product called the Hug, a soft anthropomorphic robotic pillow that relays intimate communication over conventional phone lines. If Granny's not home, a child can leave a "message" on her Hug expressed by cues such as gentle lights, sounds, and vibrations that accompany a voice recording.

But where Granny and Grandpa—not to mention aging singles—will live is a bigger problem facing society than the technologies they will use. As useful as they already are in hospitals, robots and smart technologies may soon have an even greater impact on retirees simply by enabling them to remain at home. In the December 2006 issue of Scientific American, Bill Gates forecast that personal robots will soon revolutionize industry and rock the cultural status quo just as PCs did in the 1970s. His title, "A Robot in Every Home," is not just an echo of Herbert Hoover's 1928 campaign promise of "a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage" but also a potentially accurate prediction. Who knew that Americans born in the mid-20th century, a sector closely identified with peripatetic lifestyles and address changes, would inspire a movement called "aging in place"?

One of the movement's champions is Beacon Hill Village, a nonprofit agency in Boston founded by a group of neighbors in 2001. BHV has taken the concept a step further by using the movement's newest name, "aging in community." Membership in the organization, which now encompasses several neighborhoods, ensures seniors access to services from carpentry to car rides as well as a way to remain socially connected. BHV director Judy Willett claims that most people, facing the prospect of nursing homes or assisted living facilities, opt to stay at home if they can. Since technological innovations, such as sensing devices for remote medical testing or advanced GPS systems, can supplement existing home care services, BHV is working with researchers and product developers, particularly MIT's AgeLab.

In collaboration with other MIT divisions and outside designers, AgeLab has developed a spectrum of products and services intended to help seniors perform specific tasks better, such as continuing to drive safely, managing prescriptions, or making shopping decisions. Working with the Rhode Island School of Design, AgeLab developed Pill Pet, a toy-like device for older adults that emits different prompts as reminders to take the meds or go to a doctor's appointment. Another product designed with Proctor & Gamble, Smart Personal Advisor, attaches onto a shopping cart and can be programmed with, for instance, personal diet data to recommend healthy selections.

AgeLab Director Joseph Coughlin cautions designers against underestimating senior preferences, intimating that it's ageist to assume this group will be conservative and low-tech. Citing the popularity of Swatch watches and Mini Cooper cars with older customers, he claims that consumers in their sixties are now as style-conscious as those in their twenties. As aging boomers buy products for themselves or their elderly parents, manufacturers and marketers must change the strategy they've followed for more than 60 years. "We're living in a time when the population we've always catered to as being perpetually youthful is now no longer young, but youthful in attitude. And that is truly disruptive to the business model," Coughlin says.

BHV's Judy Willett points out that boomers have always loved gadgets, so it's likely they'll use products that make life easier to the bitter end. Right now, technology plays only a small role at BHV—mainly Lifeline pendants for summoning help—but Willett anticipates more experimentation when boomers enter the community in the future. Nonetheless, she emphasizes that technology, no matter how cool, will never replace human contact. "As their needs change, what most people want is people. They want relationships that help counter isolation and depression and keep them engaged in life." Assuming that's true, our society may never accept androids in lieu of human companionship, but it doesn't mean robots can't learn to play a mean game of bridge.

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