Grandma’s family worries constantly because she keeps forgetting to take her medicine—yet she wants to remain in her own home on her own terms. Uncle Bill has trouble getting his wheelchair through the bathroom door of his new apartment. Your parents no longer have the reflexes necessary to drive a car safely, but they don’t want to give up the freedom of being able to get around on their own.
Sometimes, just getting through the day can be overwhelming if you’re a senior citizen or a person with a physical challenge. Life becomes a balancing act between maintaining your independence and getting the extra help you need to ensure your safety and preserve the quality of your daily life.
Quality-of-life issues will consume more of the nation’s resources as the proportion of older adults and people with disabilities continues to grow. And it’s not only the individuals themselves who are affected; it’s also the families who love them.
Today, some 12 percent of the U.S. population is over 65. As Baby Boomers continue to age, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2030 more than 20 percent of a U.S. population of 300 million people will be 65 or older. In addition, while approximately 60 million people in the U.S. report having some type of disability today, that number is expected to rise to 75 million by 2030.
Addressing this growing personal and social issue is the mission of a new research center established jointly by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh with a five-year, $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Called the Quality of Life Technology Engineering Research Center (QoLTERC), it is home to researchers who will look for ways to apply technology, particularly information technology, in ways that benefit seniors and people with disabilities.
“We envision a future of compassionate, intelligent home systems—individual devices that you can carry, or technologies embedded in the environment that monitor and communicate with people,” explained Takeo Kanade, U.A. and Helen Whitaker University Professor of Computer Science and Robotics. Kanade will co-direct the center with Rory Cooper, chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology at Pitt’s top-ranked School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
These devices and systems will be able to monitor the health and activity levels of people living alone, prompt failing memories, control household appliances—and even improve existing assistive technologies such as wheelchairs.
For example, Kanade envisions that a forgetful senior might carry a small recording device around her neck to prompt her to take her medicine… or Uncle Bill’s wheelchair might be equipped with software that helps it negotiate tight doorways. Cars could have collision-avoidance devices that help drivers compensate for mild impairments.
Kanade also points out that this research will benefit society at large. “If the technology we develop can ensure that people remain in their homes instead of in assisted living or nursing home facilities for just one month longer, we can save our nation $1.2 billion annually.”
With the center only newly established, many of these devices are still conceptual, but the technologies themselves have already revolutionized some industries and need only be given new applications.
Pittsburgh, with one of the oldest populations of any major city, is an ideal location for this research. Focus groups and prospective users will be heavily involved in the development process to ensure that the technologies developed are accessible, effective, and user-friendly. According to Cooper, an internationally recognized expert on wheelchair design and an accomplished wheelchair athlete, “Our real goal is to conduct our research in homes, in communities—not artificial environments. We can’t do this alone.”