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New technologies can help seniors "age in place"


As the number of seniors citizens in America grows each year, the issue of how to make life easier for older people is growing in importance as well. One researcher, Joe Coughlin, has made it his passion to use technology to help people live longer and live better. WRVO's Catherine Loper spoke with Coughlin, who has roots in upstate New York, when he was in Syracuse this fall.

The average life expectancy for Americans is longer with each generation, and the number of senior citizens is growing as baby boomers get older. But the demographic shift is even more acute in upstate New York, where the portion of the population over the age of 65 is larger and growing faster than the national average.

Joe Coughlin is the founder and director of the AgeLab at MIT, which tries to develop ideas to help the aging population. Coughlin says their work is trying to answer the question that living longer raises:

"How do we reinvent what we're going to be doing with 20 maybe even 30 years of longer life after what we've called retirement?" asked Coughlin.

As Coughlin explains it, societies will need to adjust many different aspects to accommodate having more aging citizens. The fields of health and medicine will obviously be affected, but so will transportation, social services and other infrastructure.

"The aging of America, the aging of rural America, is too big for any one company, any one government," said Coughlin. "We're now going to have to very be creative on how we develop services and products and indeed solutions ... to address those issues from health, to well-being, to engagement, to frankly, even part time work."
Part of what the AgeLab does is what you might call whiz-bang inventions. The lab has a simulator suit which makes the wearer feel many of the sensations someone in their mid-70s might experience. Product designers, city planners and others can use it to help make their products and facilities more convenient for seniors.

Some of the new technologies might seem like they are straight out of the Jetsons. But Coughlin says they are actually practical applications to help seniors live better.

Things like "robotics to remind you to take your medications, robotics to monitor whether your walk has changed ever so slightly so that we can predict a fall in your walk, rather than to help you once you've fallen," he said.

There are also computer technologies being developed that allow seniors to enjoy a virtual meal with a far-away family member, or allow doctors to consult via video conference or monitor various health indicators remotely. There are even high-tech toilets that can -- shall we say -- analyze whether you've taken your medicine or what kind of nutrients your body needs.

It's all working towards the goal of enabling seniors to "age in place" because moving to a retirement home or to live with relatives can be expensive and costly in other ways.

"In the United States, even when the economy was going well,  your marriage your mortgage and your memories were in the house that you were in probably by the age 50 or thereabouts," said Coughlin. "The likelihood of moving was very little even when the economy was going well."

But who's going to pay for all these technologies when politicians and the public can barely agree on how to fund existing programs to help seniors like Medicare? Coughlin advises that living longer and living better will take some preparation.

"Retirement planing is going to have to change from simply being, 'Do I have a nest egg to pay for my mortgage or maybe just to buy food and what I need to - quote - retire,'" said Coughlin. "Instead, retirement planning now is going to have to be, 'Do I have the funding necessary to pay for those services I'm going to need to age in place, to age well, to provide for quality of care.'"

Coughlin has family members in central and northern New York and spent vacations as a kid in the region. He said he developed a can-do spirit from those times in upstate New York, and as a student at SUNY Oswego.

It's that path that led him to the cutting edge of a field that he hopes can help everyone.

"Because, really if you think about it, aging, with any luck, is something that all of us get to face. And that is the endless frontier for science, technology and society."

You can hear more from Joe Coughlin and a panel of regional experts on the issue of innovation aging Sunday, November 18 at 7 pm on WRVO Public Media.