Wireless networks, fast Internet connections and smart kitchen appliances are all the rage in high-tech homes for the hip, young and well-to-do. In other words, not senior citizens on fixed incomes.
But digital lifestyle technologies are slowly being adapted by the elderly, allowing them to stay longer in their own homes, relieve the burdens of caregivers, and, ultimately, reduce their health care costs.
It's a far cry from the rudimentary panic-button devices plugged by those campy "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up" TV commercials.
With the number of people over the age of 65 expected to double to 70 million by 2030, the business potential is huge - even if some high-tech companies aren't sure how to approach a market so foreign to them.
"You almost call it an aging bias," said Russ Bodoff, director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies, a consortium of companies and universities. "Companies like to be seen as young, innovative, sexy."
Getting older, he said, "is not something they like to be identified with."
Yet some companies are recognizing the need.
Research projects now under way are studying the benefits of sensors that can confirm a senior has awakened and used the restroom, for example, and kitchen appliances that remind dementia patients how to use the coffee pot.
Semiconductor giant Intel Corp. has been working since April 2002 on prototypes that incorporate networks of wireless sensors and digital devices to issue medication reminders and even determine a senior's level of activity.
Others, like General Electric Co., build on existing home security systems and deploy simple motion detectors to watch for abnormal behavior.
In GE's project, called Home Assurance, networked wireless motion detectors send data to a central device that resembles an answering machine, which transmits data within seconds to a server at GE. Caregivers can log into the server over the Internet to check up on someone, or set up the system so it alerts them automatically by phone or e-mail.
Home Assurance has been a relief to Susan McDonough of suburban Albany, N.Y., whose 74-year-old mother still lives alone despite a recent stroke, open heart surgery and seizure.
"Did I ever think the Internet would be able to help me in this manner? Absolutely not," McDonough said. "I'm given so much comfort now when I log in to check."
So far, McDonough has not received any alerts. But she said the service would have been invaluable in February when her mother suffered a seizure and could not call for help.
"I would have known she never made it out of her room, and I would have been at her bedside five hours earlier than I was," she said.
"This technology allows me to continue to live independently in my home, which I value tremendously," said McDonough's mother, Mary D., who asked that her last name not be published because she lives alone. "I also appreciate the opportunity to age with dignity."
And with no video or audio, or access beyond the people the senior citizen chooses to let in, the system does not invade privacy. That's important, since dementia and other problems associated with aging can increase feelings of paranoia.
GE hopes to commercialize the Home Assurance system next year, although other projects will not be available for some time.
For its part, Intel plans to start installing prototypes of its system as part of its research, then share what it learns with other companies in the health care business.
Intel's involvement in this research was serendipitous.
Eric Dishman, a social science researcher at the chip maker, stumbled on it while conducting a study on home broadband uses in 1998-99. While the households being queried weren't terribly excited about using high-speed Internet access for entertainment, many asked about the prospects of using it to help care for an aging parent.
Intel's plan is to collect environmental, behavioral and biological data through a network of wireless sensors that may also include semiconductor chips that send out radio signals. It's focusing on conditions like cognitive decline, cardiac disease and cancer.
In one scenario, patients with early stage Alzheimer's might receive prompts from the system when they pause for an extended period while making tea. Reminders to eat, drink and take medicine could be sent through a radio or television.
Such home-based systems simply would not have been possible a few years ago, Dishman said.
"Why now? We've got a broadband connection to the home, a Wi-Fi (wireless data) connection within the home and wireless sensors where you can deploy and install without rebuilding somebody's home," he said.
The big challenge remains creating the back-end software that must interpret the sensor readings and figure out whether a person has fallen or whether a pet cat is sleeping on the floor. Systems also have to be programmed to recognize normal behavior.
Dishman said society has no choice but to aggressively develop such technology as 76 million baby boomers begin to turn 65 in 2011.
"We already can't pay for prescription drugs and all the things that are going on," he said. "There's literally no sustainable model other than we've got to develop technologies that (help) to keep them healthy and independent."
On the Net:
Center for Aging Services and Technologies: http://www.agingtech.com