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With the first Baby Boomer recently filing for Social Security, it is clear that more Americans will be living into their 80s and beyond. Responding to this trend, a new Penn State center will pursue interdisciplinary research that enhances independent living opportunities for older Americans in their homes and their communities and also fosters their physical, emotional and social well-being.
"The demographics of baby boomer aging over the next decade foreshadow great economic, political and cultural changes that could overwhelm many developed countries," says Dr. Richard Behr, founding director of the center and the Charles and Elinor Matts Professor of Architectural Engineering. "We need to enable our aging population to live successfully at home, and delay as long as possible the need for our seniors to be moved to assisted living facilities. This will not only enhance their quality of life, but also will reduce this country's runaway health care costs."
U.S. Census projections predict that by 2050, nearly 1 in 4 residents will be 85 years of age or older. In Pennsylvania alone, by the year 2020, residents age 60 and older will comprise 25 percent of the total population, or more than 3 million people. These trends will put substantial pressure on health care resources and costs.
"Our future older population will be better educated, healthier, and more diverse than previous generations have been," says Dr. Susan McHale, professor of human development and family studies and director of the Penn State Social Science Research Institute, which will house the new Smart Spaces Center.
"People will want more choices in living environments, social activities, transportation and medical care," she adds. "But providing those choices will require that we review how people make decisions about their daily lives, what information will help them make the best decisions, and what should happen when elders face difficulties in the decision-making process."
The Smart Spaces Center will bring together researchers from a wide variety of fields including engineering, architecture, health and human development, psychology, sociology, medicine, gerontology, business, and information sciences and technology to develop "smart spaces" that will enable citizens to live safely, comfortably and independently in their own homes as long as possible.
The Penn State center defines several kinds of "smart spaces": personal, living, information and societal.
To foster smart "personal spaces," researchers will study physical health; cognitive and sensory functioning; and social, emotional and spiritual well-being from the perspective of how these can best enable successful aging in place.
"Physical health depends on a lifestyle that pays attention to nutrition, sleep and physical activity," says McHale. "Daily living tasks such as dressing, feeding oneself, and getting in and out of a chair are integral to being independent. Changing sensory abilities such as hearing and sight losses can make it harder for older adults to interact effectively with others. We need to continue to develop new ways of protecting seniors from negative effects of these losses. We also will continue to study how older adults can stay mentally competent and connected to people and the community."
"Smart living spaces" research will focus on technologies that allow seniors to live at home, such as better lighting for people with diminished vision, improved room acoustics for those with hearing loss, advanced floor and wall materials to minimize falls and accidents, easy-to-use sensors to monitor grocery and prescription medicine orders, and devices to measure vitals such as blood pressure.
"Smart information spaces" will incorporate into home environments a range of technologies that will provide easy access to information on medical problems and care, financial questions, and safety and security concerns, as well as opportunities for social networking by older Americans.
"Nanotechnology, information technology and biomedical advances can revolutionize the way people age - if these advances are implemented seamlessly and humanely," Behr notes. "Sensors in our garments, and perhaps even in our bodies, could constantly monitor heart rate and body temperature. But then, new information technology systems will be needed to store and process vast amounts of real-time information. An expert computer system may need to sift through information, highlight critical data, and offer likely diagnoses and recommendations for a physician or other health professional."
In another application, researchers may see if information technology incorporated with such novel devices as the Wii video game controller or the virtual world Second Life could help older people stay mentally active and connected to the community.
"For example, could an elderly person use the Wii controller to stroll through a virtual village, choose real groceries in a virtual supermarket, or order real medicine in a virtual pharmacy?" asks Behr.
Finally, "smart societal space" research will examine the design of living spaces, as well as entire communities and community infrastructures such as public transportation, emergency response systems, social services, and public spaces. Penn State scholars also will evaluate the ethical, legal and cultural issues involved in topics ranging from financial and estate planning; security, abuse and exploitation; and beliefs and values about the elderly and their role in society.
The center will initially draw on existing research in at least six colleges: Arts and Architecture, Engineering, Health and Human Development, Information Sciences and Technology, Medicine, and the Liberal Arts. Expertise also is likely to come from units including Dickinson School of Law, Smeal College of Business, and Penn State's research institutes.
The Smart Spaces Center also will seek external funding and will partner with private foundations, corporations, and government agencies. Behr will be working with the AARP in Washington D.C. for six months (July-December 2008) to develop a Penn State/AARP research agenda for the Smart Spaces Center.
"Many industrialized nations are facing a growing crisis with regard to their aging populations and how to care for them," say McHale and Behr. "Penn State's Smart Spaces Center will mobilize our diverse and cutting edge research capabilities to enable our rapidly growing elderly population to age successfully in place."
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