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March 17, 2004, 1:39AM

High-tech care for elderly on display

Promoters say devices could aid self-sufficiency

By ANASTASIA USTINOVA
Knight Ridder Newspapers

BURGEONING MARKET
Innovators see a huge market for devices to help the elderly in the next decade for several reasons:

The first of 76 million baby boomers reach 65.

The Alzheimer's Association projects that 14 million people will have Alzheimer's by 2050, up from 4 million today.

The American Council of Life Insurers expects nursing-home expenses to triple by 2030.

WASHINGTON -- Someday soon, Grandma's toothbrush may be equipped with a sensor to see if she's brushing. Grandpa's favorite chair may be wired to transmit his blood pressure reading to his doctor.

These and other new technologies intended to prolong life, help caregivers monitor people's health, and save labor costs at retirement homes went on display Tuesday on Capitol Hill. High-tech alliances of leading university labs and technology companies say their devices could be available in three to 10 years. They want Congress to help pay for them.

Generally, the new technologies entail sensors and wireless communications systems to monitor vital signs and convey the information to caregivers. The simplest devices automatically turn on a light when a person gets out of bed and track motion to see how well someone slept. The most complicated gizmo -- a robot named Pearl -- keeps track of whether people are eating, sleeping and taking medications and reminds them if they aren't.

Other prototype devices monitor weight and blood pressure continuously, help Alzheimer's patients recall names, faces and recent conversations, and listen to footsteps to see how steady people are on their feet and broadcast an alarm if they fall.

"We send elderly people to hospitals because we are afraid for their safety. The new technologies will allow them to be more self-sufficient and independent," said Bill Reed, the owner of Oatfield Estates, the country's first wired rest home, in Milwaukie, Ore.

"It's all about how to use technology to help people age in their homes," said David Tennenhouse, the director of research at Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif.

The elder-tech industry says its devices are cheaper than hospital or institutional care.

"We don't have enough caregivers to work with all the seniors. When their population triples, it's going to be more difficult," said Dr. Laverne Joseph, the president of the Retirement Housing Foundation, a California-based nonprofit group.

At Oatfield Estates, which Reed described as "an alternative to assisted living," computers record the location of every resident, and sensors under residents' bedposts -- with permission -- tell caregivers whether residents are losing or gaining weight or having trouble sleeping.

Although the intense monitoring brings George Orwell's "Big Brother" to mind, Reed said enhanced health monitors gave older Americans more freedom while prolonging their lives.

"We are aware of the security and privacy issues," said Russell Bodoff, the executive director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies, which sponsored the exhibition. No one should collect information without permission, he said.

On the Internet: The Center for Aging Services Technologies: www.agingtech.com





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