Thursday, May 10, 2007

Getting Old Sucks: New Ideas and Technology Are Needed Today To Make Our Lives Better For Tomorrow

Getting old. It's a fact of life for all of us and for many, it sucks. As we baby boomers head for our "greener pastures", things are going to change. We've been able to take technology and adapt it to our needs. And that's what's happening all over the world as we head for those golden arches. I saw this really cool story this weekend on a grocery store in germany that is adapating itself to the older generation. And with my Mom in her 80's and my friends holding menu's as far as their arms will stretch, I think we need some of these ideas. Read on...

At Generation Market in Germany, they aren't trying to sell MP3 players to teenagers and they're not trying to sell designer clothes to hip 20-somethings. They're trying to sell groceries to old people. The shopping carts have magnifying glasses attached for help reading product labels. There's a seat attached to the back of the cart for the weary shopper to take a break. There are steps up to help shoppers reach items stacked high in the brightly-lit cabinets. And on the shelves, there are smaller portions for the person who lives alone and doesn't need a six-pound block of cheese to feed eight kids. Look out Costco!

This store is a mecca for the senior citizen who lives alone. But don't for a second think Generation Market is about charity. Seniors spend more on food, and as the years go by, the world's population of seniors is growing. Reports say that by 2010, one in three people will be aged 50 or over.

The Generation Market is a pilot project for Kaiser's, and the company opened it in a part of Berlin known for having a large population of seniors. If it goes well, similar stores will open across the country. The big draw for many people is the staff. The store employs a lot of cashiers and assistants in their 50s. There's seems to be an easy rapport between staff and customer. I watched in amazement as one elderly lady ay the check out handed her entire pocket book to the cashier and asked her to take whatever was owed.

Red buttons can be found throughout the store for customers to summon assistance. If you need help, you just push a button an somebody come running to help. The store has seen tremendous growth. Now this is one great idea. Making it easier for people to live their lives independently. And, Lord willing, as the computer geeks of today, we need to take this technology we've created and use it to aid us in our golden years.

The Internet is bringing the whole world together, but there is one group that has been left out -- seniors. People born long before the computer was even conceived are less likely to be part of our hyper-connected world. But that is changing. A recent study found people over 65 make up the fastest growing segment of Internet users, outpacing even their wired grandchildren. In the United States, an estimated 10 million seniors are currently on line and that number is expected to double by 2010.

There are thousands of so-called cyber-grandparents at retirement centers around the country. They use the Internet to stay informed, to pay the bills and most importantly to connect with family. Hardware is being adapted to the needs of the elderly. Keyboards at the retirement centers are bright with large letters, and the cursors magnify the screen. But it's not just family and friends who want to hear from these elderly Web surfers. It turns out there's a whole new generation that's hungry for their wisdom.

There is a national group called "the elder wisdom circle." Through its Web site, members dole out online advice. At one session, the members discussed how to respond to a woman whose fiance had cheated on her. "Dump him because he's bad news," and, "Have it out with him put him on the spot," were a few of the ideas tossed around the table. The group has answered 60,000 questions about love, finances and life's little challenges.

We're even developing technology to check up on our elderly family members. One story I read said that every morning John and Virginia log on to their computer. They are not reading e-mail but instead checking up on Virginia's 80-year old mother, Louise, who lives across town, alone. By visiting a designated Web page, John and Virginia can tell exactly when Louise got up this morning. "Within five minutes we can know if my mother has been up to the bathroom in the night, or if she has fallen," says Virginia, staring at the computer screen.

Quiet Care, an arm of security systems makers ADT, which uses motion detectors in its burglar alarm systems. If someone fails to leave their bedroom by the time her family has agreed upon, or if they go into the bathroom and don't come out, the system sends a text message to a cell phone. Another system, due on the market this year, is called e-Neighbor. It uses motion detectors to determine a typical pattern of activity for a senior living alone. If there is an abnormal period of inactivity, the system will call the resident, a family member or neighbor for help. It can also dial 911.

These gadgets are part of a growing number of new technologies helping senior citizens live independent lives. The population of senior citizens has boomed. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 7,900 baby boomers turn 60 every day, and the options for long-term care outside their homes is both limited and expensive. What we need is technology to help sort this out and to help us live safely in our environment.

At Accenture Labs in Chicago, they've have come up with what they call a "smart" medicine cabinet. It looks like a typical medicine chest, but one of the doors is a mirror and the other is a computer screen. The cabinet uses a camera to "recognize" the user, and speaks up to prevent mistakes. Scott Rose, managing director of Accenture Technology, demonstrated the system by reaching toward the cabinet for what he thinks is allergy medication. "I pull out what I think is Claritin," he says while reaching for a bottle rigged with a tiny sensor. The computer immediately realizes something is wrong and an electronic voice says, "Wrong, you are looking at Meridia instead of Claritin."

There are even sensor-equipped beds. The bed allows nurses to track subtle changes in sleep patterns and heart function, like an electronic daily physical. The bed was developed at the University of Virginia (Read The PDF Paper) and is expected go on the market later this year for the price of $1,000 dollars.

At Georgia Tech, scientists have built an entire house to study inventions specifically designed for an aging population. The house is a pleasant bungalow that has the feel of a beach house. There are wires, cameras and sensors everywhere. There are computer terminals that track movement in the house and "watch" behavior. In the kitchen a computerized tray keeps track of when pill bottles have been removed, and keeps a running record of which medications were taken, and when. Another computerized program helps diabetics calibrate the meter that measures their blood sugar.

All this technology provides safety and comfort to the senior citizens who use it, but it also helps children and family members who don't live next door. The technology and ideas we develop now are going to help you and I in the next few years. Maybe I won't have to end up in a nursing home after all. With the aid of technology, I can continue to to live on my own.

I just hope they come up with something to wipe my butt, because I don't ever want anybody to do that!