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Robots, sensors to help elderly stay at home

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 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 industry within a decade.

The 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.”

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.

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.

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