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You can break the epidemic of isolation as you age

The term of the week is "gobsmacked." As in, "I was gobsmacked when my son asked me at what age I thought I might want to go into a nursing home."

The term combines the English/Scottish slang word "gob," which means mouth, with the verb "smack." If you're "gobsmacked," you're totally astonished, solidly hit with something that leaves you speechless.

Recently I was wide-eyed and open-mouthed while reading "Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America." In each chapter, contributing authors illustrate the possibilities offered by creative, age-friendly thinking and new technology. Some of this information may prompt hand-over-mouth astonishment in you, as well.

Imagine it's a decade into the future and you're determined to continue to live independently — age in place. But your children are worried. Maybe you are, too. Here's one creative idea. A "shake sensor" is installed on certain key objects in your home. The sensor nonintrusively tracks your normal routine. Do you get out of bed at a regular time, take your medications in a timely fashion or get daily exercise? A sensor on a medication bottle or your walking shoes could inform you about unrealized changes in activities of daily living as well as ensure information is transmitted to your adult children living at a distance. The unobtrusive device may convey to concerned family members that you're doing fine; or it may raise a caution flag, providing early identification of possible problems and prompting solution-oriented thinking.

Here's another idea that may gobsmack you. In neighborhoods and communities where folks of all ages drive their cars and some older adults are stuck at home, GPS units can be placed on the dashboards of the cars to determine typical routes (grocery store on Tuesday mornings, church on Sunday). That information can be shared with stay-at-home seniors to match willing drivers with those who need rides or errands run. The result is more social connectedness for lonely, aging adults and engagement across neighborhoods.

Here's why this kind of technology is so critical. Aging experts tell us there's "an epidemic of isolation among older people." It's been well documented that when an individual's social-support system declines, health inevitably fails. One study has already shown that "continuous measurement of everyday functions, such as walking, can detect changes that may indicate cognitive decline." Researchers found that individuals with a rich social network are measurably healthier and "live at least 1.6 years longer than their age peers."

Let's go back to the concept of in-home sensors as an example of how information can help make life better. In a study sponsored by Intel Corporation in concert with Oregon Health Sciences University's Center for Aging and Technology (www.orcatech.org), sensors were placed on telephones and entryways in the homes of aging adults. Those sensors tracked calls and visitors to the home. Many adult children were gobsmacked by the data collected. A typical incredulous reaction was, "Your system is broken — the display says my father has not had a visitor or a phone call in six days!"

The system was working just fine.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at 541-261-2037 or Sharon@hmj.com