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AgeLab aims to make life easier for elderly

Sarah Knauss, who was the world's oldest person when she died at age 119 last December, once said that she enjoyed her longevity "because I have my health and I can do things."

MIT's AgeLab was created to "do the research that will allow more elderly people to maintain their health and 'do things,'" said Dr. Joseph Coughlin, the AgeLab's director, at a workshop October 5. The day before, Dr. Coughlin presented a talk in Washington, DC at a White House Forum on technologies for successful aging.

Because most people prefer to live independently rather than go to assisted living, the AgeLab's focus is on developing the technologies, products and services that will allow them to do so. "Think of the home as a platform for providing care," Dr. Coughlin said.

At the AgeLab workshop, MIT researchers and colleagues from a variety of departments described six ongoing projects to that end. For example, Professor Thomas Sheridan talked about an "expert system" that will allow home monitoring for people suffering from congestive heart failure.

The Intelligent Cardiopulmonary Decision System he is developing with mechanical engineering graduate student Daekeun Kim "will alert the user as to whether their condition is stable or getting worse," said Professor Sheridan, who holds joint appointments in the departments of mechanical engineering and aeronautics and astronautics. When connected to a modem, the system could contact the patient's doctor.

Professor Feniosky Pena-Mora of civil and environmental engineering described work on handheld devices that professional caregivers and other medical personnel could use to record, report and coordinate elder care.

What about "smart" clothing that aids a person's movement? Enter the "biosuit" that Professor Dava Newman and graduate student Joaquin Blaya of aeronautics and astronautics have just begun to develop. "Research on astronauts' movements during space flights and the design of space suits have generated a wealth of knowledge that can help address some of the needs of an aging population," Professor Newman said.

Falls in the home are the leading cause of injuries in older adults, said Dr. Adam Martidis of the Tufts University School of Medicine and the New England Eye Center. Because the most frequently cited causes of falls are failing vision and poor lighting, Dr. Martidis and Elias Reichel of Tufts are developing intelligent home lighting. "It's an automated system that senses the direction of travel of an individual and lights his or her path," Dr. Martidis said.

The AgeLab is supported by the Healthy Home Consortium, whose members include Procter and Gamble and Electronic Data Systems. AgeLab collaborators also come from other universities, including Tufts, Harvard and Yale.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 18, 2000.

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