Research: Addressing the challenges of our aging population
The fact is, the world has been aging, this nation has been aging, and the state of Maine is significantly ahead of the aging curve.
Because of this, we face as a state a number of challenges. We’re also a rural state, so this also adds to the complexity of an aging demographic in our state.
Rural communities are old communities. Those are places where adults age in place, and we’re a retirement destination. That’s, in a sense, a perfect storm of variables that result in Maine being far ahead of the demographic curve.
The University of Maine Aging Initiative is a collaborative project, a transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary project where we’re bringing together the faculty, students, and staff from a number of different departments.
We have already identified some 100 or more faculty and researchers on the University of Maine campus, but also on the other campuses throughout the system who want to jump on board.
We’re looking at things like protection from falls and tripping, or increasing mobility in helping seniors to stay physically active. We’re developing things like sensor technology to monitor elders in their homes but maintaining privacy. Most importantly, we’re looking for ways to help an aging population live and thrive in place. And this is just the beginning.
The point of inventing the AFARI, the jogger, was to be able to participate not only in races but also in hiking, in distance walking, because the walkers that are out are both ugly, and they don’t function.
What they needed was some help with the engineering. We’ve gone through four or five iterations of the design and then engineering on it. The device can take some weight off, so it allows you to actually go outside and exercise, which is ideal for elderly.
As we grow older, one of the things that happens is if we fall, we’re prone to experience a variety of conditions and impairments. The notion for this is what kinds of equipment or what kinds of material can we develop that somebody can wear, so that when they fall, it mitigates the fall or in best case, prevent an injury.
It makes a very big difference. It can significantly reduce the level of injury if you’re wearing this device, compared to if you’re not wearing it. Especially if you hit a hard floor, like a hospital floor or something like that.
The cool thing is that our mechanical engineering partners have definitely gotten on board with both form and function. We can’t live without them. Maybe they can live without us, I don’t know. [laughs]
Everyone brings in their different points of view. It’s amazing. Liz and Stephen are in social work, and they have a completely different point of view on things. You really need that kind of diverse team in order to do this kind of work.
Our side of the story is we try to address this problem by developing new technologies that can help people prevent problems that make them leave home. Like fall detection or fall prevention, or try to help them navigate in their home much easier when they have low vision or low light environments.
We have one of our students walking around who’s testing the new device that basically tracks where you are within the room itself. The thing that it does, it picks up little RFID tags and then tells you what room that you’re in.
Right now he’s moving, so of course our device will track him as moving, as he’s going about the room. But if he stop moving, it will also track him as no longer moving, and then within a certain amount of time of not moving we can certainly send out information and call for help or alert somebody of a problem.
As sociologists we’re able think and help others think about how aging impacts both individual peoples’ experiences and everyday lives, and also what the impact of an aging population has on our state, on our culture.
My focus is on workers’ experiences in the workplace. One thing that was very common among older workers was for their contributions to be ignored in the workplace. Not only their contributions, but just their personhood. That was the most common experience across the board, that they simply weren’t taken seriously and weren’t valued as workers.
Aging is something that affects everybody. We all hope to be old, a lot of us have aging parents and relatives. The University of Maine System’s Aging Initiative really is something that is relevant for every single member of every campus.
That’s the primary charge, as I see it. Ensuring that folks have options, alternatives and choices that they can make in terms of how they live their latter years.
It’s very exciting to be working as a whole campus on a research challenge of the state. I think that’s what we should be doing and so, again, am very excited about that aspect of this research initiative.
It continues to carry forward, it continues to grow.