DALLAS – Someday soon, older adults may not need to move into nursing homes because they’ll have a household of technological wonders to keep an eye on them when they become frail.

Like smart pets that never require feeding, robots will scoot from room to room to wake the homeowners in the morning, remind them to eat and send for help if someone falls.

Sensors embedded throughout the seniors’ homes will detect when the residents have sleepless nights or forget to take their medication. Web-based computer software will notify caregivers.

“This is the future of aging,” said Fillia Makedon, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Technology will let people grow old at home.”

With support from the National Science Foundation and others, Makedon has created the Heracleia Human-Centered Computing Laboratory at UTA, where she, other faculty members and their students are designing technology that will allow tomorrow’s seniors to remain independent longer than previous generations.

The research facility, and a handful of similar labs across the country, will be the springboard for what experts predict will be an exploding assistive technology industry within a decade.

The UTA lab houses a make-believe one-bedroom apartment equipped with high-tech cameras, motion sensors and robots, and surrounded by computer stations.

Professors and students measure any movement within the furnished apartment and feed the data into computers that will alert them to any measurement outside a normal range.

Once the technology is perfected, caregivers will be able to sign on to a secure Web site and check how well a senior is recovering from surgery or responding to a new prescription, Makedon said.

It will also act as an early warning system for caregivers, she said. An unexplained change in someone’s gait, for example, might signal a higher risk of falling and the need for a walker.

“The goal is to create a safer environment without unnecessarily invading someone’s privacy,” Makedon said. “Caregivers will turn on the cameras only if they suspect something is wrong.”

Besides advancing basic research in the field, the lab is introducing students to the everyday problems of old age and challenging them to find technology-based solutions, she said.

Many experts hope that assistive technology will help ease the strain the aging population will place on the nation’s long-term care system.

There aren’t enough trained caregivers or facilities to accommodate the expected doubling of older adults over the next 25 years, said Mary Jane Koren, an assistant vice president at the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that studies health care issues.

And Medicaid, the federal-state program that pays for most long-term care after people deplete their personal resources, won’t be able to cover boomers’ costs without some form of relief, she said.

“Assistive technology will hold down long-term care costs, lighten the burden on caregivers and let the elderly stay at home, which is where most prefer to grow old,” Koren said.

Fears that seniors will be wary of such technology are unfounded, experts say. The AARP Foundation has found that nine of 10 older adults will agree to remote monitoring if it keeps them independent.

“We’re on the cusp of another electronics revolution,” said Anne Tumlinson, a senior adviser for Avalere Health, a health care consulting firm. “Older adults will soon rely on assistive technology as much as cell phones.”

A few remote monitoring systems and medication dispensers have already made it out of the research lab and into the marketplace. But experts expect a surge of devices in five to 10 years.

In fact, the nascent assistive technology industry is planning a coming-out party in January at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the world’s largest consumer technology trade show.

One exhibit will be “a home of the future” sponsored by the Center for Aging Services Technologies, a coalition of more than 400 technology companies, research universities and government officials.

“We’ll show people what’s already available and what other cool things are on their way,” said coalition spokeswoman Lauren Shaham.

The biggest barrier to these products making the leap from university and corporate labs to seniors’ residences will be cost, she predicted, since government programs and private insurers typically don’t cover them.

Industry officials are pressing Congress to bring together leaders from business, government and health care to figure out how to make assistive technology more affordable and available.

“This technology will require an initial outlay, but it will produce long-term savings,” Koren said. “Caring for someone at home costs far less than in an assisted living or nursing facility.”

Still, Makedon said, the greatest benefit of assistive technology will be peace of mind for seniors and caregivers. “It’ll create a safer environment for the frail, so families needn’t worry as much.”

The professor has only to think of her own mother to understand the real-life implications of her work. The 87-year-old woman has fallen twice, and Makedon is afraid the next accident will be more serious.

“This research is more than an academic exercise.”

(c) 2008, The Dallas Morning News.

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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

AP-NY-10-22-08 0941EDT

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