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Innovation in senior care: 'Telecaregivers' help more seniors age at home

Cameras, sensors, and video chat allows caregivers to be hundreds of miles away. But some see shades of 'Big Brother' in this new senior care model.

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“The aging issue is no longer a demographic projection. It’s here,” says Joe Coughlin, director and founder of AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. “There’s a market that awaits, policy that demands to be made, and a lifestyle to be invented today – actually yesterday,” he says. “Frankly we’re already 20 years behind.”

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Professor Coughlin founded the AgeLab in 1999 to invent ways to improve seniors’ health and quality of life. The lab, housed in MIT’s School of Engineering, frequently looks to places like NASA for inspiration.

Among AgeLab’s equipment is the Aware Car, a red Lincoln MKS wired with cameras, monitors, and sensors that evaluate a driver’s behavior, to improve safety. It’s a test bed for innovations. Nodding off? Cameras and infrared sensors track eyelid movements and direct the driver to pull over and rest. Sensors in the center console also track heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, and might release a spritz of lavender, adjust the air temperature, or prompt the driver to eat a snack.

“Very soon cars are going to be taking a more active role in your safety,” says Coughlin.

For the home, Coughlin’s team uses the same technology that NASA does to track supplies in a space station to track Mom’s medication and Dad’s eyeglasses. Tiny radio frequency tags can be attached to such items, and adult children can track their location and usage on the Web.

The AgeLab’s Smart Trash Can even tracks the weight and material of disposed items to alert adult kids if something is amiss.

Coughlin says the AgeLab’s technologies represent the future of innovation by going beyond simply reacting to a crisis and addressing more than ailments and emergencies.

“It’s no longer about detecting what’s going on in somebody’s house. Rather, it’s about predicting and being proactive about well-being and motivating behavior to ensure overall wellness,” he says. “Innovation is about where we want to be and how to get there, not simply managing where we are today.”

In Tampa Bay, Fla., developer Keith Collins is designing homes and garages where seniors can park their Aware Cars. Since 2000, he has built more than 2,300 senior-friendly homes in the area. His company, New Millennial Homes, uses a concept called universal design to make homes accessible to a range of people, including seniors and those with physical handicaps.

“To build a home, you have to look at demographics and what is a person’s need,” says Mr. Collins, who spent time in a wheelchair after serving during the Vietnam War. Many of his clients simply want to maintain their daily routines – at home, on their own terms, he says.

His homes feature flat entries, wide doorways, low counters, and accessible front-controls on appliances for those in wheelchairs. Large, bright numbers on thermostats ensure readability, and large, low wall switches are easier to control. Some features, like rollout cabinet shelves and stove-top pot-filler faucets, now come standard in high-end homes. But with starting prices as low as $95,000, Collins’s homes are anything but.

“We want to keep people in their homes longer and do it affordably,” he says.

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