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Scientists test new tools for seniors, whose ranks will double by 2030 'Ultimate consumers' are aging, and products for them will be waiting CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Throughout their lives, baby boomers have dominated the marketplace. The generation of 78 million consumers born from 1946 to 1964 once made hula hoops a hit. As teens, boomers bought cheap stereos and compact cars. In middle age, they snapped up camcorders, computers and mutual funds.
Now, with a boomer turning 50 every seven seconds, researchers and marketers are developing everything from simple gadgets to complex computer systems to ease a generation into old age.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab and dozens of other research centers around the country, scientists are working on inventions that seem destined to transport the Golden Girls into the world of Star Trek:
* A computer aid that would help older shoppers pick foods based on their medical history. Tiny radio transmitters in food packages would broadcast ingredients to the device, which would offer advice to the shopper.
* Shoes with battery-powered vibrating soles that stimulate nerves to improve balance. Researchers say the technology could cut the number of debilitating falls. One out of three people over age 65 suffer some sort of fall each year.
* Homes that would allow residents to open doors and control shades, windows and thermostats through a touch-screen by the beds. Other systems would call in orders for food and medicine when supplies ran low and would summon help when detectors sensed that the resident wasn't moving.
For those concerned about a rapidly aging population, such products and services can't come fast enough. Between now and 2030 -- the year the last boomer will be 65 -- the number of Americans 65 and older will double from 35.6 million to 71.5 million. This group will represent nearly 20% of the nation's population -- up from 12% this year.
''It's like a tsunami coming at you. You know the tidal wave is going to hit, and it's a question of whether we'll be ready,'' says Ed Schneider, dean of the University of Southern California's Davis School of Gerontology.
Another reason for the rush: money. The baby boomers will be the wealthiest group of elderly in history. Although only 20% of the population, they will control 40% of the nation's disposable income and 77% of private investments.
''It will be hard to ignore a population of this size and wealth,'' says Jack Guralnik, chief of epidemiology and demography at the National Institute on Aging. ''They are used to being heard, and they are the ultimate consumers.''
The boomers will need those resources. The incidence of disabilities among the elderly -- everything from arthritis to Alzheimer's -- doubles every five years after age 65. Walking, driving, climbing stairs become harder tasks.
Worse, traditional care for the elderly will not be there. Finances are forcing nursing homes to close. Baby boomers had smaller families; that means fewer children to care for them. And the age group that follows the boomers, the so-called baby bust generation born from 1964 to 1983, is much smaller. It will provide fewer nurses and workers to care for the elderly.
''We need answers today for what faces this generation because we are running out of time to prepare for what's coming,'' says AgeLab's director, Joseph Coughlin.
Such answers are being sought in labs and boardrooms across the country.
Compensating for disabilities
More products are being developed to compensate for the physical disabilities that come with age. Some solutions are already here. Retailers offer tools and kitchen accessories with thicker handles for arthritic hands. Manufacturers sell door levers instead of doorknobs and levered faucets instead of spigots for the same reason. Bathroom-fixture makers offer taller toilets to make it easier to sit down and stand up, and sell roll-in shower stalls to accommodate wheelchairs.
More ambitious products are in the works. Research by Boston University biomedical engineer Jim Collins found that older people have better balance if the nerves in their feet are stimulated by vibrations. That led to a design for vibrating shoes that can help wearers avoid falls. The product is under development by a Rhode Island firm that has caught the interest of Nike and other shoemakers.
''Somewhere between 10% and 15% of elderly falls result in serious injury or fracture,'' Collins says. ''That means a lot of pain and suffering and health costs in the billions.''
In a longer-term project, AgeLab is borrowing from spacesuit technology to create a lightweight undergarment to assist creaky joints in tasks such as lifting and climbing stairs. Researchers envision a suit with sensors and tiny motors at the elbows and knees. When its wearer moved those joints, the sensors would activate the motors to aid in the motion.
Automakers and university researchers are testing and refining sensors, monitors and other devices to compensate for the coming decline in the reaction time and awareness of boomers.
Some luxury cars already sell options to make driving easier for the elderly. Cadillac and Lincoln offer night-vision options that project an infrared image of the road on the windshield. Other upscale cars have motion sensors that warn drivers of objects to the side and rear of their cars.
This summer, Toyota previewed an option on its Prius hybrid that parallel-parks automatically. The $2,100 system uses television images and a computer program to determine the size of the parking space and how to maneuver the car into the spot. It then takes over the controls.
The AgeLab has a specially equipped Volkswagen Beetle named Miss Daisy that's used to measure driving skills. The lab is recruiting volunteers of all ages to wheel Miss Daisy, a driving simulator, through a virtual urban landscape. The goal: to see how automated systems will work for drivers of all ages.
One solution still to be tested is a ''smart'' intersection that would use sensors and radio transmitters to broadcast warnings to the driver of stop signs, red lights or pedestrians in a crosswalk. The car would pick up the broadcast, and an automated voice would warn the driver.
Monitoring health at home
Researchers also are tackling health care for the elderly. The leading idea: systems that monitor a person's health from home.
In Japan, where the percentage of seniors in the population is rising even faster than in the USA, several manufacturers sell toilets that weigh the person, take the person's temperature and test urine for blood sugar and stool for cholesterol levels. The results are sent automatically to the doctor's office.
EDS, a Texas-based data processing firm, is working with the AgeLab and other research centers to develop new ways of organizing, sending and interpreting medical information. The goal is to make it easier for the elderly to supervise their own health care.
One idea: a computer chip on a card that would contain and update its owner's medical data. Any doctor, pharmacist or other health care provider would have instant access to critical health information.
''We're working to take all those data points and integrate them so you can get care wherever you go,'' says Vicki Shepard, EDS vice president for global government solutions.
AgeLab is developing another use for the health card: a device called a ''Personal Advisor'' that would ride in a supermarket shopping cart and scan product bar codes, or communicate with tiny radio tags in food packaging. It would use the information to determine whether the calories, vitamins and other nutrients were right for the shopper.
The technology for the system already exists. Supermarkets are testing bar code readers for consumers. Wal-Mart and Gillette are at the vanguard of other retailers and manufacturers who are replacing bar codes with the radio tags, which are known as RFIDs, for radio frequency identification.
Researchers also are working on ways to use technology to help the elderly remember to take their medicine.
One prototype robot tracks its owners to give them their pills. At LifeWise Home, a test home in Bowie, Md., developed by the National Center for Seniors' Housing Research, a monitor calls out from the bedroom to nag occupants in an automated voice if they fail to take their medication.
AgeLab is considering another option: a variation on Tamagotchi ''virtual pets.'' The handheld toys were a marketing rage a few years ago. Owners feed and care for the Tamagotchi by clicking buttons on the toy. In the AgeLab version, seniors must use the buttons to report they have taken their medicine. If they don't, the pet gets sick and dies. ''Guilt is a great motivator,'' AgeLab director Coughlin says.
The home is the biggest area of research and product development. Homes have been built to test new technologies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Rochester and elsewhere.
At the University of Florida's Gator Tech Home in Gainesville, sensors embedded in the wall and floor track the movements and habits of residents. If someone falls or fails to keep to his or her regular schedule, the system asks whether he or she is all right. If there is a problem, a message is sent to family and caregivers.
Working with companies such as Motorola and Honeywell Bull, the university is developing a smart phone that will allow residents to give commands to the house. The phone includes a small video screen that can show who is outside and open the door. The resident can control temperature, shades and windows simply by speaking into the phone.
In the kitchen, refrigerators and microwaves are being developed to communicate with the RFIDs in food packaging. The information from the radio chips would allow the appliances to keep inventory, track expiration dates and automatically cook the products.
Bill Mann, who heads the university's Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Technology and Aging, says he remains awed by the possibilities.
''The underlying technology has come forward so fast that we're doing things we didn't dream of 25 years ago,'' he says.
Not all home improvements for the elderly come in high-tech packages. Surveys by the National Association of Home Builders show that more than half of people building or renovating homes are looking to the future by incorporating design features such as ramps, wider doorways for wheelchairs and grab bars in the bedroom and bathroom.
None of the home improvements comes cheap. Simple monitoring systems already on the market cost up to $1,000 to install and have an average $50 monthly service fee. Even reconfiguring a house with ramps and bars can cost thousands.
But the upfront costs can eventually turn into savings. Mann did a study that shows the long-term benefit. For one group of elderly, he spent $2,500 per person on simple tools to enable them to be independent, such as grab bars, scooters and stair glides that carried people up and down stairs.
The test group's bill for hospitalization and nursing home visits averaged $5,600 per person over 18 months. The average bill for a control group that received no home improvements was $22,000 each.
''The numbers are staggering if you look at what it is going to cost to provide for the older population,'' Mann says. ''The goal is to do it less expensively and more humanely.''
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