Technology helps elderly live independently

Posted: Tuesday, October 01, 2002

DENVER -- Ken Nixon sees his 84-year-old mom, Louise, every day. They chat in the morning and sometimes have dinner together, and he watches as she takes her Alzheimer's medication, even though they live about 250 miles apart.

The two communicate through computer screens, a system that Nixon and his brothers created using a DSL telephone line that allows them to dial straight into their mother's computer.

''This has exceeded all of our expectations,'' said Nixon. ''It's almost like being in the same room with her. You don't realize how much the visual makes a difference when you're just talking on the phone.''

Surveillance technologies like the one Nixon created are being tested across the country to help the elderly and disabled achieve greater independence. Privacy is a concern because information could be leaked, and it may jeopardize autonomy.

Jon Sanford, a researcher at the Veterans Affairs Center on geriatric rehabilitation in Atlanta, said the technology can be divided into three main categories: assisted, monitoring and tracking and feedback.

Assisted technology can be as simple as a large-button telephone or a lazy-susan shelf. It is commercially available.

Monitoring technologies use sensors or video cameras to surveil a person's well-being, similar to the Nixons' system.

Tracking and feedback technology for assisted living and private homes is in the development stage. Researchers hope to create systems that follow movement and health and safety, will recognize inconsistencies and give feedback to take corrective action.

''Tracking technology tries to promote independence,'' Sanford said. ''It tries to adapt the environment to an individual.''

Some technology, such as wanderer alerts, already is used in nursing homes.

''The technology is drifting more and more into the mainstream, though, and things are moving pretty fast,'' said Gavin Hougham, director of gerontology research at the University of Chicago. ''I wouldn't be surprised if something was out on the market for private use very soon.''

Hougham said the technology won't come cheap and some families will not be able to afford it unless covered by insurance.

Researchers at Minneapolis based-Honeywell International Inc. are working on feedback technology that will use motion sensors, medical devices and software to give a caregiver access to conditions and daily routines.

Honeywell spokesperson Patricia Silva said researchers are integrating phone sensors, motion detectors, temperature sensors and devices that would monitor pulse and activity level, hopefully permitting a disabled or elderly individual to live alone.

''We're trying to create systems that are specific to an individual's needs,'' Silva said.

Information either would be transmitted to a health-care facility, or a caregiver would have a pager that would beep if an inconsistency were detected.

The technology is being tested in retirement communities in Florida and Minnesota. The costs were still undetermined.

Silva said stringent passwords and encrypting would be used to determine if information were put on the Internet.

Critics like Hougham say the technology could be considered an invasion of privacy.

''These systems all presuppose privacy isn't going to be an issue,'' he said. ''The upside is, you can keep an eye on mom. The downside is, what if mom doesn't want her son having access to her every movement?''

As long as the people who have access to the information have a right and a need to know, the technologies wouldn't breach privacy, said John Banja, an ethicist and professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

''If the caregiver would be there anyway to witness what was being recorded, then it's not an invasion of privacy,'' he said. ''But this is a moral experiment. We'll have to see how it can be abused and then try to avoid it.''

He said security would have to be flawless.

Nixon said it is a risk he's willing to take, mostly because he knows how much his mother likes living on the family farm in Lavaca, Ark.

His system uses corporate conferencing software which transmits images and voice. There also is a live video where his mother can see images of her grandchildren.

''If you can keep someone from going into a rest home, it maintains independence and it also saves millions of dollars,'' Nixon said.

He is hoping to market his system to other caregivers of Alzheimer's patients.

''We really understand how difficult it can be to watch over someone and also for that person to feel like they are being baby-sat,'' he said. ''We just want our mother to be comfortable.''


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