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“Your mother is losing her memory,” the doctor said. At 80 she was fit for her age. But a series of “mini-strokes” had impaired the area in her brain that was home to short-term memory. She would become progressively more disoriented. She might forget to take her medications and to fix her mealsor to shut of the gas burners on the stove. It was time, my family agreed, for her to move to a retirement home. But she hated the idea.

My mother’s story is all too familiar to millions of older Americans, for whom the years we call “golden” are tarnished by illness and senility. Three quarters of Americans over 65 suffer from a chronic disease. And in the U.S. and other industrialized societies, many adult children are too busy making a living and raising their own families to care for their elderly parents at home.

Dr. Robin Felder, director of the Medical Automation Research Center at the University of Virginia, has given a lot of thought to that problem. He and his Healthsense Project team work to extend senior citizens’ years of independence with affordable high-tech assistance devices that help older users to keep an eye on their environment-and their environment to keep tabs on them.

The Seeing Eye Walker

Senior citizens comprise three out of every four blind Americans. To help this population retain their freedom of movement, Felder’s team developed a tool they call the Smart Walker (See “Smart Walker Strolls Ahead,” July 5, 2001). The walker is a three-wheeler fitted with a laser scanner. Onboard software processes the data from 180 degrees of approaching terrain and steers the front wheel toward openings and away from obstacles. The walker, known as a “passive shared-control navigation system,” does not lead users around against their will. Instead, mobility is a result of give-and-take between the user’s self-propulsion and the walker’s automated reactions. If, for example, a user does not see a coffee table ahead, the walker will detect it, override the user’s steering to avoid it, and thereby prevent a possible fall.

The Healthsense Project is developing a second tool, to complement the walker and help seniors to continue to live in their own homes-known to gerontologists as “aging in place.”  The goal is to build a network of sensors in a user’s home smart enough to recognize ordinary patterns-such as eating, sleeping, and greeting visitors-and to alert caretakers to out-of-the-ordinary ones-such as prolonged inactivity or absence. “For instance,” says Felder, “if you go into the bathroom then disappear off the sensor for 13 minutes and don’t show up anywhere else in the house, we infer that you took a bath or a shower.” But, he continues, if a person falls and remains motionless for 20 minutes, “the system would record that seismic event and instantly somebody would be notified.”

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