High-Tech Aging: Tracking Seniors' Every Move A growing number of companies are using monitoring technology to revolutionize elder care. Sensors can transmit someone's every move -- from getting out of bed to making a pot of coffee and opening the refrigerator door. But what do seniors give up in privacy?

High-Tech Aging: Tracking Seniors' Every Move

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


I'm Melissa Block. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

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BLOCK: Today, how the Internet is transforming how baby boomers care for their aging parents. As part of her series Aging at Home, NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports on new technology that's designed to help you keep tabs on mom and dad.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: When Lida Lee Bridgers' mother had a stroke a few years back, Bridgers and her husband moved in with her in Austin, Texas. But that left them house-bound.

Ms. LIDA LEE BRIDGERS: She was not very steady on her feet and kind of doing the surfing-the-furniture type thing. And so we were real reluctant to leave her alone.

LUDDEN: Bridgers' husband, Chris, was in IT, so he set up some motion sensors and linked them to a computer. The Bridgers were worried about her falling, especially in the bathroom.

Ms. BRIDGES: If she was in the bathroom more than 30 minutes, it would send a text message on our cell phone.

LUDDEN: From that, a business grew. This year, the couple launched�Adaptive Home, one of a growing number of startups betting on a big market as the baby boomers enter old age.

Chris Bridgers says a basic package includes about a dozen motion sensors placed strategically around a house. They can provide adult children with a stunningly detailed rundown of a parent's day.

Mr. CHRIS BRIDGERS: They may know that their mother got up in the morning, that she's been to the kitchen, she's opened the refrigerator, she's taken her medicine.

LUDDEN: The sensors can even note when Mom makes her coffee and sits in her favorite chair. The idea is to alert children with a phone call or text message when anything unusual happens. Of course, there have been bumps. Some clients insist they're sound asleep all night.

Ms. BRIDGERS: Come to find out, they're out of bed for two hours at night doing whatever. They're in the kitchen, in the bathroom.

Mr. BRIDGERS: The refrigerator was opened.

Ms. BRIDGERS: And the refrigerator was opened, like, three times from 2 to 4 a.m. And the kids, you know, they don't need alerts for that because Grandpa wants a glass of milk.

Dr. NANCY SCHLOSSBERG (Counseling Psychologist): Well, it's frightening to me. It's like Orwell.

LUDDEN: Nancy Schlossberg is a counseling psychologist who focuses on�seniors. She wonders if all of this monitoring really means it's time to consider assisted living. But, if a family goes the high-tech route, Schlossberg hopes they ask mom and dad first.

Dr. SCHLOSSBERG: It is really important not to feel marginalized and not to feel degraded because you are old. So, if the technology can make you feel good about yourself, that's fine. If it is a way of looking at you, inspecting you, then it isn't so good.

Dr. JOE COUGHLIN (Founder, AgeLab, MIT): Welcome to the AgeLab.

LUDDEN: Joe Coughlin heads the AgeLab at MIT, where researchers are coming up with all kinds of new things to monitor. Coughlin is deploying the same technology NASA uses to track supplies in the space station.

Dr. COUGHLIN: You can go onto a Web browser and find out exactly what's in mom's kitchen, or what medication has been taken or not taken.

LUDDEN: The key is tiny radio frequency tags, which Earth-bound retailers already use for inventory. These would signal when a parent picked up, say, a particular bottle of medicine.

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LUDDEN: Of course that doesn't mean dad actually took those pills, so Coughlin is developing a smart trash can to track what's thrown out. He says this could also monitor whether mom is eating enough good meals, since nutrition is a common problem for elderly living alone. Moving on to the bathroom, MIT professor Oli de Weck envisions sensors on toothbrushes.

Professor OLI DE WECK (MIT): There are even (unintelligible) electric sensors that can measure how much pressure did you apply to the toothbrush when you brushed your teeth?

LUDDEN: Sound like way too much information? Well, Coughlin says it can help get beyond simply reacting to a crisis.

Dr. COUGHLIN: Where we're moving is predictive. A change in your walk, a change in the time that you've made coffee or tea, may indicate that you're not feeling well. So the idea is to be able to intervene before you fall, before you have an issue.

LUDDEN: And that, says Coughlin, can help keep a loved one on their own even longer.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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