PITTSBURGH – A group of academics, business leaders and residents are convening this week to bring together the region's large elderly community, private industry and university programs in medicine and technology.
The resulting conference is a look into the region's latest innovations involving technology and aging. From virtual communities on the Web to remote medication monitoring, technology is something that can be used to empower the elderly, said Judith Tabolt Matthews (search), one of the organizer's of Friday's meeting.
For decades, researchers have been exploring ways that the elderly can utilize technology to enhance their quality of life. An article by a psychiatrist and computer scientist in a 1972 journal called The Gerontologist concluded technology was necessary to keep the elderly independent.
Matthews said Pittsburgh's large elderly population gives researchers here an advantage. About 16 percent of the city's 334,000 residents are over 65, well above the national average of about 12 percent.
"We are engaging older adults or users of whatever the technology is in the development of it, and that, I think, makes it a much stronger process," said Matthews, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Community Systems at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing (search).
Jim Osborn, executive director of Carnegie Mellon University's Medical Robotics Technology Center (search), said technology could be used in many ways to help the elderly live more independently, such as with remote medication monitoring. But, he said, there is a challenge.
"We have to come up with ways of using technology to simplify technology," said Osborn, who is also CMU's coordinator of the University Life Science Initiatives.
He said the Pittsburgh region's elderly population, old infrastructure and the challenges of the geography make the area an ideal place for research.
"Part of the reason we want to do this here is because we recognize we could be doing a great service to our indigenous population," Osborn said. "Also if you can solve problems here, solutions for other places will be that much easier."
Jeff Pepper founded a company in 1999 that encourages the elderly to use the Internet, and makes it easier for them do to so.
One of the many services the Oakmont-based Touchtown Inc. (search) provides is an e-mail service that can be used by dictation instead of typing, allows users to click on a picture of someone instead of typing in their e-mail address and is easily viewed with large type and high contrast.
Pepper said the services they offer, including private channel television systems at retirement communities, help the elderly learn to embrace technology instead of shunning it. The elderly won't use technology if they feel it's too complicated, he said.
"An older person has a great deal invested in their self-esteem and they don't want to look like a fool in front of their kids or grandkids. So they tend to be unwilling to take risks with technology," Pepper said.
Matthews said the key is developing something that fits their needs — and works.
"Older adults are very accepting of technology," Matthews said, "as long as it is intuitive to use and reliable."