Technology for the Aging
Project Overview

Project Overview

Smith College
University of Massachusetts Amherst

The growing numbers of elderly individuals in need of supports to live in the community will severely test the current services infrastructure. Part of the answer is to develop technological innovations that allow a sensitive and intelligent augmentation to empower an elder population to successfully "age in place." However, it is essential to understand the needs of the target community before encouraging large investments in research leading to exotic, new technologies. Rather, this issue can best be addressed by integrating the knowledge and perspectives of social science, computer science, and in partnership with potential elderly recipients of the technology. Through such an approach, social scientists can best understand the potential of the technology, examine the ways aging clients might use it in their own context, address the learning transition into their effective use, and determine what challenges must be overcome for success. Technologists can provide reconfigurable experimental systems supporting field tests designed to provide empirical data that can be used as dynamic feedback into this analysis. Together, these synergistic activities can provide systems for studying the broader introduction of technology to the aging population.

This project addresses the concern that those who have been developing assistive technology have not been sufficiently involved at "ground level" with the elders themselves or with their families or service systems. In addition, collaboration between social scientists and computer scientists has been rare; yet, social science can tap into the theoretical foundations of behavior and identify those issues that are likely to facilitate and obstruct the introduction of assistive technology to the elderly. Therefore, the interdisciplinary and integrative approach being employed here is essential to a positive outcome.

This project brings together social scientists and geriatric social work practitioners from Smith College and computer scientists who have expertise in computer vision, robotics, and human-computer interaction from the University of Massachussetts and Mitsubishi Electrical Research Laboratory (MERL). An ecosystemic perspective will be used to study the effective utility of computer based technology for enhancing capacity in the elderly to "age in place" or live independently. Many of the issues examined in this study will be informed by the long-standing research tradition of environmental gerontology which examines the impact of physical, social, organizational and cultural environments on aging processes and outcomes. In order to assist the elderly in engaging comfortably with new technology, it is essential to enhance their sense of agency and control and thus promote empowerment; therefore, enhancing a sense of control for the elderly will be a critical element of the way in which technology is introduced. We will also examine the unique cognitive and learning issues for older adults in mastering new technology and will attend, as well, to the ethical issues raised by the introduction of technology. The technologists will provide reconfigurable experimental systems supporting field tests designed to provide empirical findings with respect to the technology. Together, these synergistic activities can provide systems molded to the precise needs and desires of the aging population - systems that are ultimately based on carefully conducted research and trial.

The technological innovations studied and developed here have great potential to reduce depression risk as a result of increased stimulation of cognition, reduction of social isolation, improvement in self care and greater sense of self efficacy, and to significantly improve the quality of care afforded the elderly. The results of this research will guide scientists and engineers in the introduction of technology to the rapidly growing and highly vulnerable population of elderly. We expect it will point the way to significant cost reduction while increasing the quality of care for senior citizens. Furthermore, the lead research team is from an undergraduate women's college that has an elite graduate program for training social workers. It will bring women undergraduates into research contact with Ph.D. and MSW graduate students and faculty and prepare them for the coming technological revolution in elderly care.

This work is supported by the following grants:
NSF HSD Grant No. SES-0527648
NSF DG Planning Grant No. IIS-0535120.