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Aging in place improves quality of seniors' lives

Dorothy Rutherford is anxiously typing at her home computer, filling in answers to an online spelling game.

"I hate it when I can't get this last word," the 86-year-old retiree says as she studies the jumbled letters "nadobna." Rutherford tries "banana," then "bandana," to no avail. She smiles broadly when the computer beeps its approval of "abandon" a few moments later.

Rutherford isn't just whiling away the hours in retirement. She is on the front lines of an initiative to help elderly Americans stay in their homes as long as they can -- a concept called aging in place.

Gerontologists say aging in place vastly improves the quality of life for seniors and is a lot cheaper for society than group homes and institutions.

The trick is to do so without jeopardizing the health and safety of older people, which is why Rutherford is playing the word-jumble game. The results of the game, as well as typos and even the intervals between keystrokes, are monitored for abnormalities that could foreshadow physical or mental infirmity.

She is one of 480 people taking part in several pilot programs in Portland, Ore., that outfit homes with technology so elderly people can be monitored for illness or infirmity.

The studies are being conducted by the Oregon Center for Aging & Technology at Oregon Health & Science University with partial funding from Intel Corp. With the first wave of baby boomers turning 65 this year, corporations such as Intel see lucrative new business opportunities tending to a generation of people accustomed to doing things their own way.

"This is a race to see who's going to invent 21st century care services for boomers," said Eric Dishman, health policy director at Intel-GE Care Innovations, a joint venture that Intel formed this year with General Electric Co. "Worldwide, there's this enormous market opportunity."

To that end, Rutherford's two-bedroom condominium has been outfitted with an array of electronic monitoring gear that might eventually find its way to retail shelves -- all of it light-years away from those rudimentary medical-alert necklaces advertised in an endless loop of TV commercials.

Motion sensors along hallways and ceilings record her gait and walking speed. A monitor on her back door observes when she leaves the house, and one on the refrigerator keeps tabs on how often she's eating.

The equipment in Rutherford's home is monitored by researchers at the Oregon lab, which was established in 2004 and developed most of the gear.

The lab includes a "model home" to test new gadgets. One is a special bed laced with sensors to assess breathing patterns, heart rate and general sleep quality. If someone lying on the bed holds a breath for a few seconds, the computer monitor flashes "subject has stopped breathing."

A pill box fitted with electronic switches records when medication is taken. And a Wii video game system has been rejiggered so that players stand on a platform that measures their weight and balance.

More is on the drawing board at the Oregon tech lab and elsewhere: software to help dementia patients find their way home if they get lost, devices that interpret facial expressions for signs of depression and robotic "pets" that have lifelike interactions with seniors.

For it all to catch on, however, major obstacles must be overcome. Among the biggest are persuading families to shell out several hundred dollars or more for sensors, and monthly monitoring fees that can top $100. Neither Medicaid nor most private insurance policies cover these expenses, said Dr. Jeffrey Kaye, director of the Oregon aging and tech lab.

Another roadblock is awareness: By the time families find out about this technology, their elders may already be in need of direct supervised care, Kaye said.

"Aging in place is starting to hit a tipping point, but we now need to make it mainstream enough where it's not something you find at the doctor's office or have to do lots of research on over the Web," said Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab.

That's where big players such as Intel and GE come in. They bring crucial marketing muscle to get widespread distribution through doctors' offices and home health care providers -- and eventually to consumers through local stores and online sales.

Then there is the downside: Some experts on the aging population worry that making it easier for elderly people to stay in their homes could reduce the incentive for children to visit or could create a false sense that technology can foresee every problem and address every need.

"This technology has the potential to isolate people as well as connect people, because it has the potential to replace [human] contact," said Tamara Hayes, senior researcher at the Oregon tech lab.

"But used properly," she added, "it enhances relationships because it lets you use your energy thinking about the things that matter rather than, 'Did Mom get up and take her pills?' "