Georgia Tech Center Focuses on the Needs of Aging, Disabled Adults

Georgia Tech Center Focuses on the Needs of Aging, Disabled Adults

Alyson Powell
August 3, 2015
Research on assistive technology tends to focus on one of two user populations: older adults or people with disabilities. Much less attention is given to designing solutions for people who fall into both categories and are aging with disability. Experiencing age-related losses in addition to a long-term impairment, it can be expected that these individuals are more likely to encounter challenges with everyday activities in the home and community. Georgia Tech researchers continue to investigate these challenges and develop supportive technology solutions as a part of Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technologies to Support for Successful Aging with Disability (RERC TechSAge).

Aging with Mobility Impairment: Understanding Challenges in the Home

Imagine a person who has been in a wheelchair most of their life due to an injury or condition. Despite mobility challenges, they learned to adapt their environment and behavior to carry out everyday activities. Now think about this person as an older adult, experiencing age-related declines, such as vision loss, hearing loss and arthritis. What new challenges do they experience? How do they cope?

A recent TechSAge study explored just that—the home experience of aging with mobility impairment. During this in-home study, researchers interviewed older adults with long-term mobility impairment about their process for activities of daily living, such as bathing, toileting, and preparing food. Interview and photo data on home activities revealed common barriers, solutions and unmet needs among this population. TechSAge investigator Elena Gonzalez notes, “The ingenuity of these seniors was incredible. Participants tackled home barriers in variety of ways, from custom home modifications, to off-the-shelf products, to homemade, do-it-yourself solutions. We gained insight on what assistive technology people are using, what works, what needs improvement, and what outstanding needs technology can help address.”

This study demonstrates just one of the many target populations being addressed in the research and development projects of RERC TechSAge. TechSAge projects will also incorporate older adult participants who are deaf/hard of hearing, have long-term vision impairments, and have progressive, chronic conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.

The Future of TechSAge

RERC TechSAge serves as a catalyst for a major shift in the understanding of successful aging with disability and subsequently in the design of home and community technologies. The five-year center, funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), utilizes the unique approach of incorporating universal design strategies to rehab engineering. Another keystone of TechSAge is problem solving through interdisciplinary collaboration. Investigators represent a number of Georgia Tech entities and outside collaborators. "The driving mantra of TechSAge is that impairments do not necessarily result in disability; with appropriate support, an individual with a impairment can continue to carryout their desired activities," said Gonzalez. "Technology has great potential to provide supportive solutions that enable people to maintain health, independence, and safe participation in activities as they age."

Currently in year two of the grant, TechSAge has already made important strides in setting the foundation for strategic research and development projects to understand and support the experience of individuals aging with disability. Research activities are underway, including studies on everyday technology use among deaf seniors, attitudes toward telewellness technologies, and the impact of hearing loss on people with vision impairment. The TechSAge team has also made headway on the development of three mobile applications, including an app to measure gait speed, for cognitive gaming, and to plan an accessible route.

The SmartBathroom project is currently in the construction phase of a state-of-the-art, context-aware, fully automated bathroom with continuous monitoring of a user’s functional status (e.g., gait, balance, posture) and task performance (e.g., toilet and tub transfers). Based at the Georgia Tech Aware Home, this project aims to eventually develop algorithms that will synchronously adjust environmental features (e.g., grab bars, fixtures) based on user needs.

Finally, collaborating with Henry Evans, a stroke survivor with quadriplegia, researchers on the Mobile Manipulator Robot project continue to expand capabilities of the PR2 robot to assist with everyday tasks, like shaving. The team has also developed and installed a robotic bed in his home designed to assist with body positioning.

"For any design to be usable, whether it be a product, technology or space, it is important to consider the range of human abilities," said Jon Sanford, TechSAge Co-Principal Investigator and Director of the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA). "This is particularly important when users are older adults, who typically have many different functional limitations and in many different combinations. As a result, older adults have usability problems with both everyday designs for the general population and specialized designs for people with specific motor, visual, auditory or cognitive disabilities. In contrast, universal design, which incorporates the needs of people with the widest range of abilities into everyday technologies, products and environments, is a strategy that will not only enhance the usability by older adults but also people with disabilities and the general population as a whole."

If you’re interested in learning more about technology and aging, TechSAge sponsors monthly Design and Technologies for Healthy Aging (DATHA) events. DATHA is a multidisciplinary initiative that brings together researchers and students from Georgia Tech with practitioners, service providers, and industry professionals in the community. Monthly meetings feature guest speakers and provide the opportunity for networking and discussion. Fall DATHA events will be announced soon at http://datha.gatech.edu/.

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