New Technology for Aging People: Innovations in Elderly Care

By Bobby Miller

According to Census Bureau projections, the elderly population in the United States will reach 80 million by the year 2050, which is more than double the current population. Since birth rates have fallen in the last few decades, as reported by PewSocialTrends.org, there won’t be as many young people to “replace” the older ones. In fact, by 2050, as many as 1 in 5 Americans could be seniors.

Caring for the elderly today is already costly. EHow.com estimates that Americans spend more than $300 billion a year to provide care for senior citizens. As their population continues to increase, so will the costs. And as the elderly become a larger fraction of the population, it could be more difficult to find young people who are willing to care for them.

In light of this situation, there is a growing need for technology that can assist senior citizens. Some innovations are geared toward helping the aging population live independently longer, while others help caregivers to perform their jobs more efficiently.

Tracking Movements with GPS and Phone Technology

As BBC.co.uk notes, it’s especially important to keep track of where an elderly person is if they suffer from dementia, an illness that can make individuals prone to unnecessary wandering. Various inventions are out there to address this issue. For instance, a caregiver might give the senior a GPS-equipped watch to wear. If this person steps out of a predetermined “safe zone,” a designated contact is alerted on their smartphones immediately.

Nvate senior care technology by chapit robot health care aids Hal elderly care

Doro PhoneEasy 618 phone

But what if the elderly person takes the watch off? Recognizing this dilemma, “Los Angeles-based GTX has teamed up with New Jersey-based shoe manufacturer Aetrex Worldwide to provide shoes with GPS trackers inconspicuously stitched inside,” USA Today reported. With the GPS in their shoes, it is far less likely that the person would leave home without the tracker on them somewhere.

Also, location tracking is but one of the many features available on the Doro PhoneEasy 618 phone, which was released in select retail stores during January 2013. Using the phone network, an elderly person’s location can easily be pinpointed.

The phone, costing $60, offers much more than that, however. To help the user, it has big, easy-to-read buttons and lacks the more confusing features found on phones today. It also provides the senior citizen a sense of safety. According to CNET.com, the back of the phone has a large button that, if pressed three times quickly, will automatically call a preprogrammed number.

Additionally, as the website notes, there is “an icon called ICE for in cases of emergency. Here you can store pertinent medical details like your birth date, height, weight, insurance info, important contacts, your doctor’s number, any listed conditions, allergies, medications, or vaccinations, and your blood type.”

Aside from these safety features, the phone offers standard cell phone services that should allow the elderly person to stay in contact with their friends and family.

Monitoring Health

Recently developed tools allow caregivers and doctors to keep track of an elderly person’s health through easy-to-use devices. For example, the Mymedic Telehealth Monitor is, according to LivingMadeEasy.org.uk, “compatible with a range of medical devices including weighing scales, blood pressure monitor, blood glucose monitor and peak flow meters connected via wired or wireless [Bluetooth] technology.”

By taking information from these devices, the monitor can send this data to a nearby clinic via a telephone line. Should any abnormal measurements come in, physicians will know right away.

The GrandCare System provides seniors with another helpful tool to keep track of their health. On its screen are big icons that give the user access to their medication, games designed to fight off aging symptoms and an Internet browser, according to BBC.co.uk. Although it can cost anywhere from $100 to $300 a month, this is still much more affordable than hiring a person to come check on the elderly person on a regular basis.

Nvate senior care technology by chapit robot health care aids Hal elderly care

Proteus Digital Health Feedback System

Caregivers can also rest assured that the elderly are taking their pills properly if they use the Proteus Digital Health Feedback System. A special pill is placed among the person’s usual pills. Once this “ingestible sensor” is taken, it sends a signal to a patch worn on the person’s stomach. The signal is then transferred to the caregiver’s smartphone, allowing them to know that the individual has taken their pills.

Robots Designed to Entertain and Help

Many of the latest innovations in elderly care are coming from Japan, where the “demographic time bomb” is especially severe. According to the Economic Times, 40 percent of Japan’s population will become seniors by 2050. In light of this, the market for technology to help the elderly live independently is growing at a rapid pace.

Nvate senior care technology by chapit robot health care aids Hal elderly care

Chapit

Although there is no substitute for human contact, robots are being designed specifically so that the aging population can interact with them as though they were another person or a pet. One example of this is the monkey-like robot Chapit. Made by the Raytron robotics company, you can speak to this robot and have it respond. For instance, if you tell it good morning, it will return the greeting to you. To make it even more life-like, it can learn up to 10,000 words, according to ThinkArtificial.org.

Aside from being a cute conversation partner, it can also help with practical tasks. Via voice commands, it can turn TVs and lights on and off, change the TV channel, and help with browsing the Internet. Its appeal should extend beyond the elderly population to anybody who finds the functions of the robot appealing.

Another robot designed primarily with senior citizens in mind is Paro. According to USA Today, it is “a fuzzy, seal-like robot” that is “about the size of a large cat.” It is “intended for seniors who are unable to care for real pets because they’re either too frail or they’re in a place such as a nursing home that forbids animals.”

This government-funded invention was designed to be as lifelike as possible. It reacts to being held, pet and praised. Also, if it is ignored, it will cry out for attention. Being able to interact with a creature that seems alive should have a therapeutic effect for elderly people. In fact, according to BBC.co.uk, the Guinness Book of World Records lists it as “the world’s most therapeutic robot.”

Practical Robots that Help with Grocery Shopping and Lifting

There are, however, robots designed to assist with more mundane tasks. One such robot is called the RIBA. According to the Popular Science website, it can lift a person weighing up to 135 pounds. It can be used to lift a senior citizen off and onto beds, wheelchairs, and toilets. The robot can be controlled by a caregiver or by the elderly person themselves. It looks like a cute, cuddly bear to make it seem less intimidating.

Nvate senior care technology by chapit robot health care aids Hal elderly care

Robovie-II

Another practical robot, named the Robovie-II, is “designed to help elderly and disabled people shop in supermarkets,” according to Phys.org. It was designed by the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International. It can remind users what’s on their shopping list, guide them to certain items in the store and carry groceries for them. It can even make suggestions as to which products would go well with those already purchased.

These robots are designed to stay in the store. Before shopping, the user enters their shopping list onto a smartphone or other mobile device. This data will then be transmitted wirelessly to the robot when it greets the shopper at the door.

The RAPUDA arm is another robot designed with disabled and elderly people in mind. Its name stands for “Robotic Arm for People with Upper-limb Disabilities.” As Discovery.com details on its website, the arm can be attached to a wheelchair and operated with a joystick. It can be used to pick up different objects. One video of the device in action shows a person picking up a glass of water and drinking from it using only the robotic arm.

Some robotic equipment for the elderly and disabled can actually be worn. One example of this technology is the Hybrid Assisted Limb or HAL. It is worn like a suit one would find in a sci-fi movie. According to USA Today, when the wearer wants to move a body part, their brain sends electrical impulses to that particular body part. This affects the surface of the skin, which the system picks up on. To help them move the limb, a power level of help appropriate to the user is then given. It can increase its wearer’s strength by a multiple of 10.

Even the CEO of Cyberdyne, the company that made the device, is surprised by how well HAL works. Yoshiyuki Sankai was surprised to see that it has allowed people who haven’t stood up in years to get up and even walk. However, it is currently very expensive, costing $2,400 a month just to rent it. However, as technology evolves, production costs should fall, making it a commercially viable product.

The Growing Need for Elderly-Care Technology

Although many of these products are currently expensive, it is important to keep in mind that senior care is plenty expensive today. According to AARP.org, nursing homes have an average cost of over $50,000 a year, and this number is climbing. Paying someone to visit an elderly person on a regular basis is also costly.

Some worry that the young are only seeking out this technology so that they can have the devices take care of the elderly for them, entirely replacing the need for human contact. However, Tamara Hayes of the Oregon Center for Aging & Technology points out that, when used properly, technology can actually enhance relationships. It gives more means by which to contact one another. She points out on NewObserver.com that it also “lets you use your energy thinking about the things that matter rather than, ‘Did Mom get up and take her pills?’” Besides, since technology can go wrong, and since no robot can perfectly fill a human’s shoes, human contact is still necessary, whether it’s through family or local care groups.

Before this new technology hits affordable prices, there is still much we can do to help elderly people live more comfortably. Small measures, such as giving kitchen utensils large, easy-to-hold handles and installing grab bars around a bathtub can go a long way. Teaching a senior how to stay in touch via email or Skype can also help. As technology progresses, the ways in which we can help senior citizens live independent, satisfying lives will only continue to grow.

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