An increasing number of scientific labs around the country are focused on creating products that help seniors stay active, healthy, and independent, reports Natasha Singer (video above and in today’s New York Times). These labs’ target audience isn’t octogenarians, or even septuagenarians – it’s baby-boomers, a generation just starting to turn 65, Singer says. She chats with Joseph F. Coughlin, director of The AgeLab at MIT. He wonders aloud:
Do we simply want to make life as we know it today and extend it, make childhood longer, adolescence longer, and worklife longer, or are there new and different things to do?
The correct answer is: there are new and different things to do. That’s a mindset typical of baby-boomers, he says – they’re not the first generation to grow older, but they might be the first to expect life to get better as it goes on. He adds that boomers are also the first generation to lead the way into what he calls “a self-directed, or consumer-directed, longevity.” In other words, boomers are gonna be old folks with some major purchasing power.
Dr. Coughlin dresses up leading reporter Natasha Singer in an AgeLab-designed suit called Age Gain Now Empathy System, or AGNES. “It’s an outfit calibrated to simulate the dexterity, mobility, strength and balance of a 74-year-old,” she narrates. It’s interesting to watch as Singer, a young woman, really does, quite suddenly, feel the effects of aging. But, as the video goes on, you realize that this suit is intended less for folks like Singer, and more for people doing product testing at major companies, so they can figure out if their products are senior-citizen friendly.
Intrigued by this contraption (and also acting on behalf of my parents, both of whom are boomers), I took a look at the MIT AgeLab website. What I immediately liked is the lab’s approach to aging: distinctly modern, but also respectful of the process. That is, AgeLab acknowledges the complexity of aging, and its projects focus on probing questions related to three specific (and interrelated) areas: infrastructure, information, and institutions. Their scientists try to answer questions like:
*How might ambient intelligence, robotics, natural speech interfaces, and other technologies support caregiving, health, and connectivity?
*How do people navigate information on websites, print materials, and packaging [for things like] medication adherence, financial choices, food products?
*What are new patterns of collaborative governance between government and business to creatively deliver services, or to realize aging as a source of economic opportunity?
Right now, AgeLab’s website shows that dozens of projects are going on. They’re worth combing though. I like one that they’re working on with Phillips (yes, the screwdriver company):
AgeLab researchers are conducting research on the application of telemedicine technologies to manage chronic conditions such as congestive heart failure (CHF), diabetes, and obesity. AgeLab researchers hope to make a “check-up a day” not only possible, but a reality, for everyone. The prevention demands of today’s older population and aging boomers will drive health delivery from the clinic to the home. [We are] developing a system to provide early detection and warning for CHF patients and their families, using a home set of simple, non-invasive commercial medical instruments.
I like to think this system will actually be affordable for people. There are a few other projects I like. These include figuring out how to control a motor vehicle with speech monitoring, and learning more about how gender differences shape retirement choices.
This search was inspired by a video report on today’s New York Times homepage which indicates that more and more scientific labs around the country are focused on creating products that help seniors stay active, healthy, and independent.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.