Independent Living for the Aging is Possible With New Technology

Americans love their homes, and given a choice, they’d like to stay in them as they get older. According to a 2011 AARP report, 90 percent of people age 65-plus want to age where they are, though less than 10 percent are using the personal and safety technology that is already available to help them do just that.


Audrey Mitchell uses robot Celia to communicate with her family members Living Labs around the country give insight into how technology can help people stay in their homes longer. — Chris Mueller

Meanwhile, researchers, scientists and designers are working to create new technology to help Americans live independently throughout their lives. But how can they tell if their products will actually help or if people will even use them?

Honing such inventions through user feedback to make them more effective and appealing, even to monitor cognitive decline as it’s happening is the concept behind “living labs.” In this research method, medical and academic institutions test their ideas for days, weeks, even years in the homes of older adults. It’s not just science that researchers must perfect; the technology must also fit into everyday lives.

“Yesterday living labs were novel,” says Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab, “but today they are the new normal for research.”

Take a look at research on healthy aging in three prominent living labs:

The Oregon Center for Aging and Technology (ORCATECH), part of Portland’s Oregon Health & Science University, is testing technology in more than 150 houses, apartments and retirement communities in the metro area, as well as 200 other homes nationwide.

They asked: Do changes in mobility and walking speed predict cognitive decline? If so, doctors might be able to step in and mitigate the problem before there’s a dramatic change. To find out, motion sensors are installed on participants’ ceilings or appliances. Information on the speed and frequency of round-the-clock activity feeds into a computer in the home and then transmits to researchers. Retired radiologist Lucien Burke, 71, says he has 20 motion sensors scattered throughout the rooms in his house. Burke thinks participating in living experiments is important. “Progress is only made when volunteers come forward,” he says.

Is wiring the lids of a pillbox to learn if users are taking their medication a better way than the current method of counting pills? And do those who take their meds responsibly have higher cognitive function? Researchers wired pillboxes with sensors that signal when each medicine lid is opened.