THE BLOG
11/07/2013 03:13 pm ET

New Technology Helps With Eldercare -- It's Not Just Robots

Last May I posted an essay titled "Do You Want to End Your Days Talking to a Robot?" It was my reaction to a New York Times article that described new robots with cute names that have been created to take care of elderly patients. There's Cody, allegedly "gentle enough to bathe elderly patients," HERB who can fetch household objects, Hector, who reminds patients to take their medicines, Paro, who looks like a baby seal and calms patients with dementia, and PR2 who can blink and giggle as people interact with it. Reading this evoked in me the same reaction as that of Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, who said she was troubled when she saw a 76-year-old woman telling her life story to the baby seal robot. "Giving old people robots to talk to," said Prof. Turkle, "is a dystopian view that is being classified as utopian."

Since writing that blog post, I've learned about some new technological developments that are showing positive results in treating patients, without eliminating the human link in healthcare for the elderly, who will number 72.1 million Americans by 2030 -- double today's number (which already includes me -- I'm about to turn 73.).

One of the encouraging developments is the Betty Tablet (which also has a cute name - -in honor of the inventor's 93-year-old mother-in-law.) Robert Nascenzi, president and CEO of NLIVEN Solutions, saw that home caregivers treating his elderly mother-in-law, Betty, were trying to communicate her needs and activities to each other with an over-stuffed and unorganized three-ring binder and post-it notes stuck to cabinets: "Betty has an infection, make sure she takes her antibiotic."

So Nascenzi developed the Betty tablet. When a home health caregiver checks into a patient's home, she can tap information about the patient into the tablet, describing what the patient ate, what activity he/she did, the patient's mood, any problems, medicines administered, doctors' appointments -- information which is transmitted in real time to the patient's doctor and all family members who are subscribers to the plan. They can receive this information with a smartphone application, or as text or email messages. (In addition to tapping, the tablet understands written messages or even voice recognition.) Subscribers can also respond and send private messages to agency staff through the Betty web portal. This way a patient's children can keep daily track of their elderly parents, no matter how far away, and a continuous record of the patient's condition and care plan is created.

Jeff Salter, the founder and CEO of Caring Senior Service, is presently testing the Betty tablet with some of his clients and caregivers in San Antonio, Corpus Christi and McAllen, Texas. Salter, a 42-year-old Texan, founded his company in 1991 to assist the elderly in their home with daily needs like bathing, dressing, errand running, housekeeping and meal preparation Franchises for his company have now spread to 700 clients in 17 states. The cost of a caregiver's visit is between $18 to $25 an hour, depending on the distance the caregiver has to travel. If the Betty tablets prove effective, Salter plans to extend their use to all his clients.

Keeping an eye open for tech developments that help the elderly, I saw that the University of California at San Francisco reported on a study that shows the aging brain can increase in vigor and cognitive ability given the right mental exercise, and that video games can be a powerful help. (The study also said that -- who would guess it? -- the biggest decline in cognitive ability happens between the 20s and 30s, but continues throughout life.) The study used a 3-D video game called NeuroRacer. (I suspect this would help me improve my driving, as well.) The test subjects played the game for an hour a day, three days a week, for a month, and showed a "dramatic improvement" after only 12 hours of play.

The San Francisco findings seem to be validated by Teresa Heinz Kerry, 75, wife of Secretary of State John Kerry, who announced in late October that she is steadily recovering from a seizure that she suffered in July -- the result of a fall that caused a concussion four years ago -- and that the brain game app for iPad called Lumosity played a big part. "I have a feeling of gratitude in my heart that my brain is still working great," she said.

A couple of new tech inventions that I read about in last Sunday's New York Times, were designed to protect children who are too young to use a smart phone, but I couldn't help thinking they might be useful for elderly people with dementia as well. Both devices use GPS, Wi-Fi and other location-tracking technology to find lost children, and can be linked to apps on a parent's phone. One is a watch from Filip Technologies which tracks a child's location and lets him get voice calls from up to five people who are looking for him. The watch also has a red panic button, which will dial the parents or people in charge when the child pushes it.

The second tracking device for small children mentioned by The Times is the Trax, which works with the parents' smart phone application to alert them if a child wanders outside a digital fence which the parents can draw on their smartphone. And if the child is lost within a store, the Trax uses motion and direction sensors to determine the child's position. (The Trax can also be used on dogs, and certainly would be useful for elders with dementia who are able to wander away.)

It's reassuring to know that new technical tools are being developed to aid us senior citizens. I've never played a video game in my life, but I reckon it's time to learn. It's certainly better than ending my days telling my life story to a robot that looks like a baby seal.