“At 80 the marks of decay are all too visible. … Perhaps, with luck, I will make it, more or less intact, for another few years and be granted the liberty to continue to love and work, the two most important things, Freud insisted, in life.” — Oliver Sacks, “The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.),” The New York Times
Jean Louise Calment, the French woman who lived to be 122 and had the longest confirmed human lifespan on record, believed in moderation. Chocolate, olive oil and laughter were part of her daily routine. Although few people will achieve Calment’s status as a supercentenarian, a common-sense approach to healthy aging will help them successfully move through their golden years.
The stakes are high as boomers retire and put greater demands on the health-care system. In 2017, the U.S. population will hit a tipping point. For the first time, people age 65 and older will outnumber those under 18, according to the National Institute on Aging. This shift is known as “The Silver Tsunami.”
Carolyn Aldwin has committed her career to the study of aging for more than 40 years. Uncertainties arise as we age, from health to living arrangements and even sex, but a growing body of research will help people negotiate the challenges as they grow older.
“I believe in ‘optimal aging’,” says Aldwin, the Jo Anne Leonard Endowed Director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University. “People are going to get sick. But how do they make the most of their lives? What are people doing to promote the well-being of themselves, their families and their communities as they age?”
OSU researchers are pursuing these questions, and many more, as they examine the range of aging-related issues. From physical and cognitive functions to social dynamics and even technology, they are tackling topics that will touch everyone, either through their own life journey or as they assist elderly parents and family members.
By 2025, Oregon is projected to have the nation’s fourth highest proportion of older adults. Oregon State’s leadership in healthy aging couldn’t be more timely.
Technology for Aging
Imagine finishing up a meal at a favorite restaurant. You’ve had nagging concerns about your 85-year-old mother who lives at Oatfield Estates in Milwaukie, so you pull out your smart phone and access the facility’s “family portal.” By logging onto this site, you can see where Mom went that day, how quickly staff answered calls for help and read notes from caregivers. How was her appetite? Did she take her medications? How was she feeling?
Not long ago, this concept seemed visionary at best. Not so today. Technology is increasingly used to address issues and solve problems associated with aging. Researchers call it “gerontechnology.” Their goal is to enhance the quality of life for older adults in their own homes or in residential facilities.
“How do you help people remain in their homes and live independently as long as possible?” asks Ron Metoyer, director of the gerontechnology research core in the Center for Healthy Aging Research. “That’s our focus.” Their studies are leading to reductions in the cost of aging care and helping scientists learn how our behavior changes as we age.
Sensors for Seniors
In Patrick Chiang’s lab, technology for aging takes the form of wearable electronic sensors. Typically about the size of a quarter, these miniature sensors can be worn on a lapel or even applied on the skin like a bandage, says Chiang, an associate professor of electrical engineering.
In a project funded by the National Science Foundation, Chiang partnered with researchers from the Oregon Health & Science University to design a sensor that monitors the indoor movements and location of elderly patients in their homes. Study participants wore a device around their neck or on their chest. With “ultrawideband indoor navigation,” the sensors enabled researchers to study aspects of the seniors’ behavior such as how fast they walk. The speed of a subject’s gait directly correlates to cognitive function and independence level.
Sensors are also under development for use in today’s “smart homes,” adds Metoyer, an associate professor of computer science. For example, sensors can track how much people are eating, how they’re sleeping and, if placed where medications are stored, whether or not pills are taken regularly.
How data from sensors are communicated to seniors has spawned another area of gerontechnology research. Through data visualization, Metoyer aims to ensure that information can be displayed in ways that are meaningful and useful for seniors.
“How do you empower them to learn about themselves and use the data to draw a simple conclusion about their health?” Metoyer says. “Do you use a simple bar chart or do you need something that shows the time component as well? The point is that you want to match the complexity of the chart to the complexity of the task that they’re trying to accomplish — whether it’s trying to lose weight or stay in touch with their children.”
All in the Family
Such concerns inspired Shannon Mejía, a graduate student who studied with Karen Hooker, co-director of OSU’s School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences, and with Metoyer. Now a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan, Mejía received her master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Oregon State in Human Development and Family Sciences with a minor in aging sciences. She is focusing on older adults in her research and says she was motivated by her parents, Lydia Lundberg and Bill Reed, the founders of Elite Care and Oatfield Estates in the Portland area.
The average age of people in Elite Care facilities is 85, says Lundberg. More than 80 percent have a dementia diagnosis and are losing cognitive function. With this in mind, the company has been using an integrated sensor/software information system in its communities since it opened in 2000.
“When people move into a community, they worry about losing their power,” Lundberg adds. “You want people to be able to move about as freely as possible, but you also need to know where they are. It’s good to know if a person is leaving their apartment.”
Sensors at apartment doorways represented an early form of gerontechnology. Today, Elite Care has advanced to using online family portals in all of its communities. Although Lundberg and Reed are no longer involved in the company’s daily operations, they are working on a smart-phone app that will help adult children monitor aging parents’ activities while their parents are still living at home. For example, through the use of motion-sensing technology, the app will alert adult children via cellphone if their father didn’t get out of bed by a specified time.
This level of surveillance isn’t for everyone. It may feel too much like “Big Brother.” However, it can also bring peace of mind. “Our vision is to build a cocoon for the elder person,” Reed says. “This software would allow family members to be involved in the care of their parents while allowing parents to live independently in their own homes longer through the latest and greatest sensor technology.”
As the rate of technology innovation speeds up, the landscape is quickly changing for sensors and apps for aging. Chiang is now creating even smaller sensors that would reduce cost, size and power needs — essentially a disposable sensor — that could deliver data more rapidly, harvest energy from the environment and leverage medical services.
“We’re working on figuring out big-data applications, trying to glean important information from continuous but noisy data,” he says. “Potential markets include insurance companies and consumers. Insurance companies could use this information to reduce the cost of clinical drug trials, while consumers can help monitor how their aging parents or even their adolescent children are doing.”
Community Quilt Software
With the first wave of computer programmers hitting retirement age, seniors are playing a key role in another digital endeavor: open-source software. Carlos Jensen is examining the value of older adults’ contributions to what he calls the “community quilt” model of programming.
In this global, collaborative software environment, anyone can adapt the technology to his or her needs. Programmers alter code and share their developments with the community. With support from Google and other companies, Oregon State has long maintained an open-source software lab for students who have contributed to products such as the Firefox web browser and the Linux operating system.
Jensen’s research shows that older adults bring a perspective to the development of open source that is very different from that of younger programmers, particularly with health-care tracking applications.
“We learned that the kinds of applications they (seniors) need were not available in the app store,” says Jensen, an associate professor of computer science. “They have a different set of concerns and a different understanding than the 20-something programmers who develop these applications.”
For example, through his research, Jensen learned that there were no apps available to help seniors prevent falls. “They wanted an app to remind them to do their falling exercises every day,” he adds.
Heading Off Falls
If you doubt that falling is a constant worry among older adults, consider this: Each year, one-third of adults 65 and older falls, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Mike Pavol has been addressing this problem for more than 15 years. He directs the Muscular Skeletal research core in Oregon State’s Center for Healthy Aging Research and is an associate professor in exercise and sport science.
Pavol uses technology to train people not to fall. Through studies with a pneumatic sliding platform or computerized visual prompts in OSU’s Biomechanics Lab, he has determined that people can learn to respond to a slippery surface or a tripping hazard by taking a step, thus preventing a fall. Training people to react and step more appropriately, he says, can help them to avoid a debilitating accident.
“The response to a loss of balance is a reflex,” Pavol says. “Over your lifetime, you learn how not to fall — really from the time you learn to walk. However, as you age, your balance recovery reflexes may get out of practice. What we’ve learned is that older adults can be trained to reawaken those reflexes.”
In the future, research by Pavol and Jensen could intersect. Pavol would like to make step-training for fall prevention more broadly accessible. “Our thought is that a step-training application could be made into a software product that people could buy and potentially use in their homes on their own time,” Pavol adds.
Such technologies may be important now, but the need will only grow. The average lifespan is increasing. Over the next century, the number of centenarians is expected to increase tenfold, according to the National Institute on Aging. Oregon State researchers aim to help them remain healthy and independent for as long as possible.