Retirees: These gadgets will help you stay in your home longer

Jennifer Crittenden, University of Maine

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on June 26, 2015.

Maine is the oldest state in the nation with a median age of 43.9, meaning half our population is over this age. In addition, 17 percent of Mainers are age 65 and older, and this is expected to increase to 20 percent by 2020.

An overwhelming majority of our older adults are aging in their homes and communities as opposed to in facilities. How can we ensure that older Mainers continue to have that opportunity?

There are technologies under development and others available now to help older adults maintain their physical health, well-being and independence as they age.

The University of Maine has recently designated aging as an emerging area of excellence. This designation will stimulate the development of cutting-edge aging-in-place technologies right here in Maine.

Here is a sample of what is to come:

Smart homes and home-based technologies: Our homes are about to become much smarter. Technologies are emerging that will enhance homes by controlling temperature and lighting, monitoring movement and activity, providing voice prompts, preventing injuries, and sending health information to loved ones and health providers. Smart homes of the future will have flooring that will help prevent fractures due to falls.

Several smart home technology projects are under development at the University of Maine, including a home sensor project that will allow the monitoring of a loved one’s safety from a distance without use of invasive video cameras.

Another project uses sensors built into bedding to monitor sleep patterns and movements, informing a health care provider of any sleep issues.

Adaptive and protective equipment enhancements: Adaptive and protective equipment will be sleek and stylish, and it will help users do more than just get from point A to B. A great example of this is the adaptive jogger currently under development at UMaine. This jogger, called Afari, is designed for individuals with mobility limitations who want to stay active. It allows the user to jog or walk with comfort and ease.

Another example is a protective headgear prototype designed to replace bulky, cumbersome, and stigmatizing helmets worn by those at risk for head injury. Designed to look like a ski hat or baseball cap, the headgear provides lightweight but effective protection. This product is being developed by a Maine-based company, Alba-Technic, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Maine.

Wearable technology: Thanks to the FitBit and similar products, many of us are familiar with wearable technology. These product options continue to grow. For example, shoes with GPS tracking now connect to mapping software, allowing caregivers to locate a loved one who has wandered from home.

Wearable technology also includes devices that are easily worn on the body to track vital signs and other information that will allow the individual, a caregiver or a medical provider to monitor health. This includes disposable sensors that can be connected to a smart phone to provide instant feedback on vital signs.

Applications that help you stay connected: Aging at home isn’t solely about maintaining physical health. Maintaining and strengthening relationships are just as important.

Over time we can anticipate that the technology divide that exists between older adults and younger adults will begin to close. In fact, older adults are the largest growing demographic on social media today. In 2013, 59 percent of older adults reported using the Internet, and that number continues to grow.

To meet growing demand, there are technologies and services being developed and on the market that provide older adults an avenue for staying connected to friends, family and broader communities.

One such example is the My Home Team application developed by Panasonic that allows grandparents to video chat, read books and play games with their grandchildren over the Internet. This particular application was designed for and tested with older adults.

Overall, the key trends you will see in this field include devices and products designed to fit seamlessly into day-to-day life without distraction. Devices will continue to become lightweight, attractive and cost effective as these technologies are brought to scale. The options are endless as technology expands our ability to remain at home while maintaining our health and connections to loved ones.

Interested in learning more about technology and aging in place? Here are some recommended links:

— Technology and Caring for Older Adults, May 6, 2015, Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing.

— Aging in Place Technology Watch, Laurie Orlov

— AARP Personal Technology Webpage

Jennifer Crittenden is the assistant director at the UMaine Center on Aging where she helps to develop and implement research, training and service initiatives that address Maine’s most pressing aging-related issues. She is also a member of the Scholar Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.

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