New innovations in geron-technology, the marriage of gerontology and technology, will revolutionize the way care and services are delivered at seniors housing facilities and boost the bottom line, predict industry experts.

"New technology will not just help us do our jobs better. It will create new models of care," remarked Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab and panelist at the September meeting of the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry in Chicago.

The University of Southern California, for example, has developed a robot that interacts with residents. The robot asks questions and can guide residents to perform tasks. Though the robot is still in the testing stage, it could eventually supplement stretched staffs at buildings, according to Gerald Davison, USC professor of gerontology.

For residents with dementia who wander, a promising innovation also is under development at USC. Sensors strategically placed in the corners of a room can track a resident's movements over a 24-hour period. The movements are then charted to show how often the resident moves toward the door to the outside, presenting an escape risk.

Residents found to be at risk can be monitored more frequently by staff, or changes can be made in the resident's environment to help reduce wandering and thereby limit the need for staff intervention.

Meanwhile, new brain fitness programs are in use to keep residents active. These computer-based exercises present challenging mental tasks and help maintain cognitive quickness. Building operators are also having success with the Wii video game system, a useful and fun way to engage residents in activities.

Other innovations on the horizon will help cut building expenses, according to MIT's Coughlin. Developing better relationships between the building management and the resident’s family can reduce liability costs, Coughlin said.

High-resolution video conferences will enable the family and building staff to make decisions together about resident care. Also, medical kiosks will send real-time medical information about the resident to specialists around the world for consultations. "Buildings and residents will be able to tap the best research institutions in the world," said Coughlin.

MIT also is developing a voice-activated robotic wheelchair. Residents tell the wheelchair where they want to go. "This helps with mobility and it helps reduce staffing," said Couglin.

Other developments include a smart spoon. This unique utensil can gauge the amount of fat and sugar in a meal during the preparation process. The information can then be sent via the Internet to a doctor or relative.

Georgia Tech has developed a smart shirt that monitors the vital signs and health of the person wearing it. Implantable sensors are on the horizon too, said Coughlin. "More of the technology will be moving on to the residents themselves."

Many of the innovations are still in the development stage and their cost isn’t known yet.

But some innovations could squeeze assisted living operators, Coughlin warns. Much of the technology under development will help people age in place, so a move to an assisted living building could potentially be postponed or put off altogether. At the same time, seniors housing operators entering the home care business must be well versed on the latest technologies.

These technologies include sensors in the home that will help families to monitor their elderly relatives via computer links. Home health stations that check vital signs and email reports to a relative or doctor are already in use. Wristwatches with global positioning are available to help find people who wander. "These devices will change the way care is delivered," said Coughlin.

Ultimately, building owners and operators need to be clear about what they want the technology to accomplish, Coughlin emphasizes, and whether the costs are a drag on profit margins.