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Eldercare Specialists Ask Congress to Support New Technologies


The "Baby Boomer" generation - born in the post-World War II population surge - is aging with oldest of the boomers now in their mid-60s. Many boomers are currently caring for their elderly parents and know what lies ahead for them. Having grown up with technology, they are looking for technological innovations to help them in their advancing years. Eldercare specialists recently brought some of those innovations to Capitol Hill in a quest for Congressional support. VOA's Susan Logue reports.

Kathy Bakkenist, senior vice president of Ecumen, one of the nation's largest non-profit providers of senior housing told Congress that technology can save money and improve lives when it comes to caring for the elderly. "If technology can keep an Alzheimer's patient out of an institution for an extra year or two - and we know it can - the savings will be tremendous and the preservation of a preferred lifestyle at home will provide a significant benefit to all," she said.

Bakkenist was one of five people who testified on Capitol Hill to promote a new organization designed to evaluate and develop technologies for the elderly and their caregivers.

She says Ecumen tests cutting-edge technologies in many of its residences. "We look for technologies to pilot (test) that we believe are user-friendly and affordable, and will ultimately result in an improved lifestyle with greater efficiencies."

For example, some Ecumen residences feature touch-screen computers for recording patient information, such as medication, blood pressure readings, and daily activities.

Some apartments are equipped with a monitoring system, known as QuietCare, comprised of lipstick-sized sensors strategically placed around an individual's home to detect potential health problems. "The client decides where they want those placed," Bakkenist says. "[It] could be a refrigerator, could be a bathroom, could be the kitchen."

The sensors detect heat and motion. Once a baseline of normal behavior is established, any deviations are analyzed and sent remotely to designated computer screens. "And again," Bakkenist says, "the client decides who gets access to the readout of the information."

Honor Hacker, 82, a retired teacher who now lives in an Ecumen facility in Minnesota, has QuietCare in her apartment. "I like knowing that there is that added level of safety with QuietCare, but that it doesn't jeopardize my privacy," she told Congress, adding QuietCare helped detect her serious nighttime breathing difficulties known as sleep apnea.

Hacker says she enjoys being an early-adapter of new technology. She especially likes Dakim [m]Power, a computer-based cognitive training program - essentially, a brain exerciser for the elderly. "It's made me more alive," she says. "When I don't use it for a few days… it's so good to get back to it and see what you knew, what you didn't know, how you could advance."

Dakim [m]Power presents challenging but entertaining exercises using film clips, pictures, music and narration. Progress is tracked so caregivers can assess the user's cognitive abilities. Simpler exercises are geared toward those with dementia.

Dakim [m]Power is already being used in some assisted living facilities, where it reduces the need for one-on-one cognitive therapy. A home version of the program will be released soon. After all, one of the objectives of using new technologies in eldercare is to allow individuals to stay in their own homes as they age.

That's precisely the purpose of GrandCare, an Internet-based system developed by Charlie Hillman and his son-in law Nick Mitchell. "We place a system in the home of a senior living independently," says Gaytha Hillman, Charlie's wife and vice president of the family-owned company that manufactures GrandCare.

Gaytha explains that a computer screen in the senior's home "shows them messages from their loved ones, pictures, calendar appointments, headline news, nostalgia and triva - all of the socialization aspects."

In addition, much like QuietCare, GrandCare uses sensors placed throughout the home "that are unobtrusive, but caregivers can go on line and see the recorded activity from those sensors. [They can] make sure that the grandmother is moving around normally, that the temperature of the house is right; she's not leaving the house in the middle of the night."

Many of the programs and products demonstrated on Capitol Hill, including [m]Power and the Hillman's GrandCare system, were developed to meet a personal need, to assist an aging parent. Ecumen's Kathy Bakkenist says she hopes Congress will be inspired to lend legislative support to these entrepreneurs:

"We need to reduce barriers to getting these technologies to market," she says, "to get them into the hands of consumers and to figure out ways to fund them so they are affordable to a broad range of people."

Over the next 20 years, 76 million Americans will enter their senior years. Many may live to be 100 or older. Technologies like the ones showcased for lawmakers could help make those last years of life more enjoyable for them and their families.

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