MIT’s AGNES, the ageing suit

Paro Robot Seal, a Healing PetAs the world’s population gets older, how are we going to manage?
Innovative approaches are being developed at the MIT AgeLab

James Crabtree, comment editor at Financial Times Magazine, wrote an excellent article on the challenges of supporting America’s aging population, starting with his account of a visit to MIT’s Age Lab and his experience wearing AGNES, or Age Gain Now Empathy System. I highly recommend reading the article and only include minor highlights here.

The article includes several photos including one of Paro, an animatronic ‘therapeutic’ robot baby seal from Japan that was designed to comfort elderly patients suffering from dementia. As seen in the video below, Paro responds to touch and sound.

MIT AgeLab's AGNES, or Age Gain Now Empathy System

James Crabtree climbs into the Agnes ageing suit, designed to mimic the physical restrictions of old age. A plastic inner harness and elastic bands attached to the feet and hands imitate the movement limitations created by spinal problems, while foam wrist, knee and neck pads simulate the symptoms of arthritis. First constructed in 2005 by a team of MIT researchers with backgrounds in psychology, ergonomics and exercise physiology, the suit has been used by companies as diverse as Siemens, Daimler and General Mills. The latter experimented with it to understand, for instance, the difficulties elderly consumers face when opening cereal boxes.

AgeLab also includes a driving simulator to help researchers and industry understand the driving challenges seniors face as they age, and some of the results include backup cameras and systems that can automatically parallel park the car.

Transportation becomes critical to the future of eldercare once seniors can no longer drive themselves, especially when public transportation is not available in their rural or suburban communities. That’s because living without good transportation options can like living in a prison.

Crabtree describes Katherine Freund’s transportation solution, ITNAmerica, a non-profit that uses computer software to connect volunteer drivers with those needing rides into a cheap and effective community-run taxi-style service. He then goes on to describe some of the world’s most innovative ageing projects.

“We spend billions of dollars trying to live longer, but no one puts any thought or any investment into how to live longer, better.” – Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of MIT AgeLab, describing a longevity paradox

Related articles on Modern Health Talk include:

The Paro therapeutic robot has been approved by the FDA as a medical device, and the June 2010 Wall Street Journal called it a $6,000 medical device, not just a stuffed animal.

Paro is powered by two 32-bit processors, three microphones, 12 tactile sensors under its fur, touch-sensitive whiskers and motors that silently move its parts. These components allow Paro to recognize voices, track motion, and “remember” behaviors that elicit positive responses from patients.

Paro has an amazingly calming affect on patients. the WSJ article described a 77-year-old nursing home resident who was grumpy in a sing-a-long and berated two fellow residents, telling them to leave. But when Paro was put in front of her, her mood changed as she stroked the robot’s synthetic fur and responded when it batted its eyelashes and tracked her movements with its head and eyes. “I love this baby,” the lady said.

Seniors love animals, even this robot one. This became evident as another resident whispered to the robot in her lap: “I know you’re not real, but somehow, I don’t know, I love you.”

See Grandma’s new friend is wired for more info.