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October 27, 2005

Technology makes golden years brighter

“In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” Andy Warhol once predicted. Whether that is true remains to be seen, but one thing’s for certain: In the future, everyone will be older.

And as technological advances help us to live longer, technology also is changing the way people will be facing the challenges of aging.

Researchers and entrepreneurs are developing products with an eye toward the growing market of adults who are living longer and living better as they approach their golden years. On the horizon are improvements in products designed to reduce medication errors, monitor health and make mobility easier. Someday, we may live in smart homes that help monitor our medical conditions and are equipped to let us play online bingo.

Such innovations draw much interest locally, both because of Pittsburgh’s rapidly aging population and the large number of University faculty focused on aging. More than 200 people, mostly in the health-care and other age-related fields, gathered for a day-long “Technology for Life and Living” session Oct. 21 to view developments in maintaining quality of life for people, whether they are aging at home or in an institutional care facility.

Pittsburgh-based AT Sciences is developing add-ons for wheelchairs including power assistance to help people in manual wheelchairs who have limited strength and control systems that can help users navigate and avoid collisions. The products are designed to attach easily to a wheelchair to help people with vision or mobility problems.The company has been collaborating with Richard Simpson, an assistant professor in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

AT Sciences president Edmund F. LoPresti estimated that in three to four years, technology being developed for use in nursing homes will enable a wheelchair to identify and follow an individual staff member or another wheelchair.

The company also is developing personal assistant systems that may help the elderly remain independent longer. The computer-based system helps those who need assistance in maintaining their daily schedule and can enumerate the individual steps that are needed to complete a particular task.

Advances also are being made in personal robotic assistants, said Judith Tabolt Matthews of the School of Nursing. A collaborative “nursebot” project between Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University researchers is continuing work on robots that could assist the elderly in tasks and monitor their well being.

The Intelligent Mobility Platform, or IMP, is a modified walker that is not powered when a user is walking with it, but can park itself out of the way and return when needed.

Another advance presented was a remote medication management system designed to ensure patients take their medications correctly. Christopher Bossi, president of Altoona-based INRange Systems Inc., which developed the system, said there is a 37 percent chance that a doctor’s prescription instructions will be misunderstood.

With the INRange system, medications are delivered in barcoded blister packs and stored in a boxlike medication delivery module that dispenses the proper medication at the proper time. The system is aimed at reducing medication errors among patients who are forgetful, who have difficulties with instructions or who are on a complicated medication regimen.

“The one thing it does not do is guarantee the patient takes it,” Bossi said.

Astro Teller of BodyMedia Inc. of Pittsburgh says body monitors are on their way toward widespread use.

Body monitors, often in the form of armbands, already are being used to help people track their activity for fitness or weight-loss management. The wearable monitors, paired with wireless technology and the proper software, also may be used to transmit health data to help those with chronic medical problems manage their condition from home.

“I predict it’ll be 95 to 98 percent of us (wearing a body monitor) in 10 years,” he said.

In addition to tracking vital signs, the monitors can track activity: when the wearer is moving, or when they are still; if they’re in bed and how long they sleep.

“We are getting it out of the research lab and into people’s homes,” Teller said. “This isn’t a futuristic Jetsons thing….This is today.”

The Technology for Life and Living seminar was jointly sponsored by UPMC; Pitt’s Institute on Aging, School of Medicine and School of Nursing; The Center for Continuing Education in the Health Sciences; the University Center for Social and Urban Research, and Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute and School of Computer Science.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 5

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