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High-Tech Advances to Help Seniors: Scary or Reassuring?

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For almost a year, I've been writing about the technological advances and inventions, including robots, that have been appearing in the headlines almost weekly, many of them touted as a boon to senior citizens who will need home care. By 2030 there will be 72.1 million Americans over the age of 65 -- nearly double today's number. The pool of caretakers will be woefully inadequate, hence the creation of robots like Cody, who is "gentle enough to bathe elderly patients" and Paro, who looks like a baby seal and has a calming effect on patients with dementia.

My comments about these high-tech breakthroughs have varied between alarm, ("Do you Want to End Your Days Talking to a Robot") and shock ("Now you can have sex with your computer!") to admiration for new gadgets -- for instance, accident-free cars smart enough to drive themselves and tiny wearable GPS systems that can keep track of wandering small children or elders with dementia.

The latest good technology I've learned about is something called "The Senior Network," currently available only in Israel, but planned to expand into other countries. Sponsored without cost by the JDC -- the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and Watchitoo, an Israeli-American video platform, "The Senior Network" is designed to bring together isolated elderly people to engage in seminars, which take place on a video platform in real time. Up to 25 participants can see each other and interact, although the size of classes is being limited to 12.

The program targets hard-to-reach populations and allows isolated elderly people in Israel to participate from their own home in social programming based on such topics as current events, religion, health promotion and music appreciation. Some of the classes to be offered for the spring semester include mathematical thinking games, grandparenting (expectations versus reality), positive communication and current events.

Dov Sugarman, the programming manager of the JDC says,"We're looking for engagement, not academics. Our real target is loneliness." He points out that elderly people who are lonely are 64 per cent more likely to develop dementia.

Here's one example of how the Senior Network has helped: Two and a half years ago, Rachel Zalmovich, then 70, suffered a stroke and lost her ability to speak. Bound to a wheelchair, she felt isolated, lonely and like she would never be herself again.

About six months after her stroke, Rachel was introduced to The Senior Network. At first, she was embarrassed about her impaired speech, but as time went by, she felt accepted by the other participants. She started forming relationships again. Soon she was connecting with people from 12 different cities in Israel, participating in discussions about history and politics and taking phototherapy courses. She felt alive again and her ability to speak was completely restored.

Rachel says the program empowered her. "You're not stupid even after you had your stroke". It also gave her a reason to get up in the morning, and a routine to follow. Each time Rachel joined a video session, she would put a flower in her hair to match her dress. Today, Rachel credits the program for her communication improvements. "Now I'm all over," she said. "My brain is ticking. I'm not stuck at home. I'm 72, and seventy is the platinum age."

In Israel the Senior Network service is free to seniors who want it. Someone will pay a site visit to the home to connect the computer to the Watchitoo video platform. Watchitoo was developed by Rony Zarom, a former Israeli paratrooper who created the technology so he could visit with his young son via video when he was traveling, and they could watch YouTube clips together. Watchitoo is now based in New York and combines HD video conferencing, streaming and multimedia collaboration on a Web browser platform. Yale University uses it for virtual classrooms and some TV networks use it for "after parties" following a TV show--so that viewers can discuss the program they just saw and ask questions of the stars.

Watchitoo and the Senior Network in Israel are just one of the ways I've learned that people around the world are creating new technology that will help in eldercare. Here are some more:

Lari Numminen, a young woman in London, has created a smartphone and tablet for senior called Zilta. She developed it for her own grandparents and now it's being used in 170 countries.

Lest you think that I've been lulled into believing that all the new technology gadgets are a boon to us seniors, let me return to my role as the Paul Revere of senior citizens, and alert you to something I read about in The New York Times' "Vows" column of January 26, 2014, "I Now Present Mr. and Mrs. Jetson."

It seems that a new fad is renting a robot ($325 a day) to attend a wedding when you can't be there, while you watch the proceedings through the robot's eyes from half the world away. Your rental robot can dance with other guests or even be the ring bearer in your place. The essay chronicled a number of robot-facilitated weddings, but it failed to address the inevitable question: If either the bride or the groom attends the wedding in absentia, using a robot as an avatar, then is the marriage legal?