Using the Power of Research to Help Us Age Successfully
Recent statistics reveal what most of us already knew: We as a population are living longer, and the generations after us will live longer yet. But as we age, what is being done to retain, as much as possible, our quality of life? In other words, what can science do to help us age successfully?
Welcome to the work of researcher Wendy Rogers, who directs the Human Factors and Aging Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology where she and her team study the factors that allow individuals to function effectively and successfully as they age.
"Our research does not emphasize loss of function associated with aging," says Wendy, a Professor of Psychology at Georgia Tech, "rather, we wish to understand factors that are responsible for retaining, or even enhancing, a person's ability to function in later life. Our research efforts are conducted within the framework of human factors science and application. We are particularly interested in understanding perceptual, cognitive, and movement control capabilities and limitations in individuals as they age."
Her lab then applies that scientific knowledge to better design products, environments, and training programs to aid the elderly. "Through application of our scientific data we hope to accomplish the goal of helping them enjoy the added longevity that people experience in today's world," says Wendy.
In aiding individuals as they age, it is important to also explore how technology can aid them in maintaining their independence during daily life, says Wendy. "Interaction with technology plays a critical role in our daily lives, so we are working to better understand how such interaction [i.e. with computers, smart phones and high-tech household appliances] may differ as a function of age and how to best incorporate this knowledge into the design of technological systems that are used, or likely to be used, by older adults," she says.
Already ahead of the curve along these lines, Wendy's lab has for several years been gauging older adults' attitudes and receptiveness towards using assistive robotics technology. Her results have been interesting. In a 2012 study supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, she and her team found that older adult participants generally preferred robotic help over human help for household chores such as cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry and taking out the trash. But when it came to help getting dressed, eating and bathing, they preferred human assistance. In addition, for the most part, the study indicated that older adults are willing to use a robot for reminders to take medicine, but they are more comfortable if a person helps them decide which medication to take.
"It seems that older people are less likely to trust a robot with decision-making tasks than with monitoring or physical assistance," says Wendy. "So, researchers should be careful not to generalize preferences when designing assistive robots."
On other fronts in their efforts to use science to enhance successful aging, Wendy and her lab are also studying how technology can aid in such areas as pain management among older adults due to health conditions, improving the quality and safety of assisted living facilities and home health care environments, enhancing memory and recall for older individuals, and minimizing errors by older adults using technical devices.
"The success of our lab is definitely a team effort," she says, "and is due in large part to the high quality of our graduate students. We recruit top-notch students and they excel in the demanding environment of Georgia Tech. We also have students who visit from around the world." The lab is part of the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement (CREATE), which is funded by the National Institute on Aging.
Wendy earned her Ph.D. and Master's degrees in Psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and her Bachelor's in Psychology (with distinction) from the University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth. Her research with older adults has been inspired by her grandparents and her parents.
She is the author and editor of key textbooks in her field and the recipient of numerous honors and awards for her work. She has enjoyed the opportunity to present her research findings and to meet students around the world.
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