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Technology Connects, Protects Seniors

Products for an aging -- but plugged-in -- population address brain fitness, social networking, personal monitoring, and the concerns of caregivers.

Technology emerged as a major theme in the 2010 Aging in America conference in Chicago from March 15-18, the largest annual national gathering of senior service providers.

Products displayed at this year's event, and at the follow up Boomer Business Summit on March 19, reflect advancements in the fields of brain fitness, social networking, home monitoring, and caregiving.

Perhaps the greatest fear related to aging is loss of cognitive abilities. Studies suggest that seniors who consistently participate in mentally stimulating leisure activities maintain higher levels of intellectual ability and significantly reduce the risk of dementia.

Dakim, one of the industry's leading providers of turnkey hardware/software solutions for brain fitness exercises at senior facilities has announced a new software-based product for home use. According to Charles Roberson, regional vice president for Dakim, the new BrainFitness software shipping this spring is superior to typical stimulating activities such as crossword puzzles or Sudoku because it cross-trains the brain in six cognitive dimensions. These include: long and short-term memory, language, computation, visual spatial orientation and critical thinking.

The program also tracks and adjusts to the senior's level of mental ability in each cognitive area independently, thereby keeping the activity both fun and engaging so it will be used long-term. The CD-based product is listed for $349 and requires the user to have only minimal experience with a traditional PC or Mac interface.

For those seniors totally lacking confidence in the use of a computer, but interested in using one for e-mail or surfing the Web, there is the MyGait GO Computer, offered by FirstStreet. GO presents an elegant, out-of-the-box hardware/software solution, using a thin client, cloud-based paradigm.

For an initial cost of $879 and $19.95 per month, the company supplies a 19-inch LCD screen, senior-friendly keyboard (with function keys color-coded and clearly labeled) and a trackball/mouse ergonomically designed to be easy for seniors to manipulate.

In addition to maintaining the hardware, GO presents a simple interface through which seniors can access the Internet, use mail, play games, and perform other online tasks. Perhaps most important is the Help Line with support services that may be summoned by pressing "the green key labeled Enter." Anyone who has tried to introduce computer novice parents or grandparents to the potential of new technology can testify that this level of full support may be the key to enabling a successful venture into the online experience.

Social engagement is the theme of MyWay Village Connected Living. By integrating a set of typical features available through the Internet, such as e-mail, calendaring, and photo management with other forms of engagement tailored specifically to seniors such as memoir creation, the company has developed a true senior portal. 

Yet while these applications offer impressive functionality, CEO Sarah Hoit describes the experience as being as much about the personal support as it is about the user-friendly technology. Combating isolation, connecting people with each other and enabling seniors to expand their world are at the core of this venture. While to date Connected Living has focused on living facilities using "ambassadors" to train seniors and staff, a new push to involve seniors living independently could unlock the potential that social networking can offer to our elders.

Home and personal monitoring also continue to advance. BeClose has announced a product that connects motion sensors throughout a home with automatic alerts sent to family or other caregivers when unexpected patterns are detected (lack of movement throughout the day, excessive bed rest, etc.). A Web portal allows customized tracking of different types of events with automated alerts for each interested family member or caregiver.

Other companies focus on different slices of the same space by placing sensors directly on a person's body. Wellcore's product is a clip-on device about the size of a small beeper. HaloMonitoring uses a band around the chest or waist. Unlike many remote alerts that require a manually press of a button to notify others to a problem, these products use accelerometers to analyze movement and automatically determine if a fall has occurred.

Given the reluctance of many seniors to let others know about accidents, even when they are injured, automated notifications can be a lifesaver. Gaining a senior's compliance to wear a monitoring device can be a challenge, however.

For families involved in the day-to-day activities involved with caregiving, there are a number of new tools, such as eCareDiary.com to help in the tracking and coordination of responsibilities relating to long term care. Developed by people who personally faced the challenges of caring for aging family members suffering from debilitating disease, the site assists in the sharing of health related documents and key medical information. It also provides a calendar for family members to coordinate and track appointments.

Another site geared towards caregivers, Caring.com is an in-depth resource center with information and forums covering the breadth of aging-related topics. Both sites include discussion boards and blogs to allow caregivers to connect with each other, share tips, and provide support during what can be a long and emotionally challenging period.

Finally, Caregivers needing information while mobile might check out two recently released iPhone apps developed by Dr. Marion Somers, an expert in the field of aging, and Presto Services, best known for a service that allows sending e-mail to people who don't use a computer.

Elder 911 provides a guide in case of an elder medical emergency, and Elder 411 offers strategies to ease the daily pressures of providing elder care. Both contain information, clear advice and checklists to help caregivers deal with tough and emotionally challenging situations in the moment and on the go.


Michael Greene has written for InformationWeek about voice-recognition systems and futurist Ray Kurzweil.

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