What are some of the technologies that support universal design (and aging-in-place)?
PERS (personal emergency response system): These are those medical devices that you wear at home that link to a central station where help can be dispatched quickly; these little devices give you and loved ones great peace of mind … if you wear them and are conscious and able enough to push the button.
GPS (global positioning system): My teenager is zipping off on a new dirt bike; he doesn’t have to work hard to find trouble. If he’s as little as one mile away and something happens, I got a tough job tracking him down. A GPS gadget saves the day. I can go with one of the pet dog models that sends a constant signal to a handheld, or, I can get two handsets that are linked. Now, I know where he is and can rescue him quickly.
Computer Check-in: A person logs onto a site and uploads their condition; this can be as simple as, “I’m fine today,” to, “I took a, b and c meds this morning and ate x, y and c for breakfast.” One can marry the computer to a device such as a blood pressure monitor thus eliminating trips to the doctor.
Telehealth or Telemedicine: Automatic devices installed in the home and connected via internet or phone can monitor and in some cases predict your status leading to faster help or preemptive actions. For example, a sensor watches for very sudden movement suggesting that a fall might have taken place. These devices tend to serve very specific purposes and locations; it is important to apply them appropriately otherwise they become an ignored or turned off gadget (think about that smoke detector in the kitchen with its battery removed). Other systems involve your activity on a computer doing some fun exercise while in the background a program monitors your behavior catching noticeable shifts.
Wii: Yes, guess what? This electronic toy is finding greater success among adults than kids! Improve hand-to-eye coordination, heart health, balance and metabolism, AND, have fun. I hear of World Cup championships taking place in senior homes.
Remote Socializing: The computer is also an excellent social tool. I knew one grandparent who had zero interest in learning the computer. One day she saw Skype, a free internet telephone and videophone application, and she got hooked. She talks to her grandkids every night closing a physical distance of many thousand miles.
Improved design, performance and availability: Many gadgets were a disaster. A bathroom hoist designed to move you from a wheelchair to a bathtub used to be a nightmare. It was expensive, cumbersome and not safe or user friendly. Today they can be incorporated into a home appearing almost invisible, wirelessly controlled, and elegant to use.
RFID: That scratchy plastic thing you discover halfway through wearing a new shirt? It’s a radio frequency tag. Right now, it’s mostly about you not leaving the store with an unpurchased item. But soon, you will just walk out minus standing at the check-out. That radio frequency ID tag is on every item in your shopping cart and in your credit card. It all gets scanned on your way out. In your home, you’ll see applications that generate your grocery list, or, in some cases, your grocery list automatically goes to the store and generates a delivery. Never run out of milk? How about that!
Remote Controls: The oldest remote control in our home was the thermostat. Right? That was it (oh, maybe a day/night light switch for you early adopters). Now, we have a remote for everything! Expect this trend to continue, as more and more home actions will be controlled remotely. This will include lighting, improved temperature control, hands-free communication, entry and alarm systems, cooking operations, etc. (although I hope they start to improve the design of the remotes for intuitive understanding and clear function control).
As we look to the future, let’s not forget past technology that already entered our culture as a result of meeting the needs of people who were/are not fully able-bodied. These include close captioning on your TV. Originally for the deaf, it now allows a much greater number of users to watch TV in a noisy location such as an airport or bar. Luggage on wheels, speakerphones, garage door openers, ramps and people movers all were made to help a few and in turn helped us all. This very much is the spirit of universal design.
In closing, don’t forget about the many low-tech applications of universal design, simple things like a bench outside your front door. It’s the experience of independent living that brings joy, not another gadget.