Chaiwoo Lee

Research Scientist

AgeLab explores the opportunities and challenges of aging with tech

AgeLab explores the opportunities and challenges of aging with tech

In the 20 years since Joseph Coughlin launched MIT’s AgeLab to explore the challenges posed by increasing longevity, the research center has expanded from a focus on transportation to home services, caregiving, housing, and retirement planning. Since its launch, technologies such as automated cars, wireless sensors, voice agents, and social robots have introduced new solutions -- and additional challenges -- for our rapidly aging population.

AgeLab works with business, government, and NGOs to seek ways to improve the quality of life of older people and those who care for them. Due to the complexity of the topic, the lab also draws on extensive collaboration within MIT.

We all exchange ideas on how to make aging a better experience and promote well-being and independence as people grow older.

“AgeLab is a very multidisciplinary, collaborative group,” says Chaiwoo Lee, an AgeLab research scientist who recently gave us a tour of the lab. “We have people from mechanical, electrical, and human factors engineering backgrounds, as well as computer science, psychology, social and political science, and public health. We all exchange ideas on how to make aging a better experience and promote well-being and independence as people grow older.”

Driving and transportation are still central to AgeLab’s research, says Lee, who showed us a customized VW Beetle used as a driving simulator to test reactions to different driving conditions and automotive technologies. AgeLab also takes research subjects out onto the road for real-world driving studies.

“With the simulator, we can study how people drive and interact with technology in the car,” says Lee. “We can look at driver behavior, where they’re looking, and what they’re doing. We look at workloads and stress levels and how those things are affected by different stimuli and designs in the vehicle.”

AgeLab’s research has revealed that reactions to automotive technology are affected by far more than age. “People react differently due to different physical and cognitive capabilities and different levels of vision, hearing, memory, and response time,” says Lee. “Experiences are also affected by past experiences with technology.”

The findings from the driving research jibes with other AgeLab studies that suggest that age is less of a determinant for technology acceptance than socio-economic status, perception of one’s health conditions, tech experience, and emotional perception of technology. “Older people are generally less accepting of some new technologies, but when those findings are compared with the relationships of past and current experiences, age has a very small effect,” says Lee.

The driving research also explores how people think and feel about different levels of automation, from assisted driving to self-driving cars. While autonomous vehicle proponents tout the technology as a boon to elderly drivers, the feeling is not always mutual.

“In our survey research we’ve found that younger adults are more accepting of higher levels of automation, including self-driving cars,” says Lee. “Autonomous vehicles could help older adults and people with disabilities, but people still need to be able to get into and out of the car and move between a car and a building. It’s a challenge of the last few yards.”


Chaiwoo Lee
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AGNES body suit teaches empathy

Surveys alone do not fully reveal the aging experience, says Lee. “Older people often don’t want to talk about it, and because aging doesn’t happen overnight, they may not even realize they’re experiencing difficulties. People get used to challenges and develop workarounds.”

To gain a clearer picture of the aging experience, AgeLab performs onsite visits, remote observations, and ethnography. “We ask older people for photos, diaries, and detailed records of their activities,” says Lee.

Consumer electronics devices are typically designed by young or middle-aged adults for consumers of the same age. As a result, even when supplied with research results on aging, designers often fail to comprehend how difficult it is, for example, for an older person to attach a seatbelt or use a washing machine.

Lee showed us an AgeLab creation called AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System) designed to help people realize the physical challenges of growing old. AGNES is body suit equipped with bungees and weights that simulate muscle loss, mobility difficulties, and other physical conditions that are common in older adults.

“Wearing the AGNES suit can promote empathy among students, product designers and others that provide products and services to older people,” says Lee. “AGNES can also be used to think about the design of doctor’s offices and other places older people typically visit. Putting on the suit gives you an instant a-ha moment.”

Aging in place with automation

Perhaps the largest societal challenge with aging is how to house and provide healthcare for older people. “There are fewer young people to take care of more old people, and there’s a trend toward older people living apart from younger family members,” says Lee. “We’re seeing growing demand for technologically enabled services and products for caregiving and aging in place independently.”

There are fewer young people to take care of more old people, and there’s a trend toward older people living apart from younger family members. We’re seeing growing demand for technologically enabled services and products for caregiving and aging in place independently.

Older people generally prefer staying at home over moving to assisted living centers, which are often too expensive. New technologies such as health monitoring bracelets, telemedicine, and home automation devices are increasingly promoted as tools to help elders “age in place.”

Yet consumer technology and medical device firms often overestimate the challenges of introducing cutting edge tech to older people. There are also localization issues to consider. “Different cultures have different ideas about caregiving, families, and technology acceptance,” says Lee.

The threat of falls is one of the greatest motivations for moving into assisted care. Today, however, older home-dwellers can use wireless sensors, video cameras, and communications technology to help avoid falls or at least quickly report them. The latest AI technology can even “monitor behavior and send notifications when certain things go out of pattern,” says Lee.

Yet, installing and maintaining home automation networks with a variety of smart devices can be challenging for millennials, let alone seniors. “A lot of homes services are offered separately,” says Lee. “Installing and managing sensors and apps is a challenge for caregivers and older adults. We should learn how to integrate and curate services so they’re easier to navigate.”

Automation issues such as privacy and security are particularly acute with seniors, who are often targeted by scammers. Human dignity is another factor that is often overlooked by tech vendors. “It’s often unclear who is seeing the data -- family members or someone else – and people may not want to share their behavior in private places like the bedroom or bathroom.”

Even if designers create an age-appropriate product, they often don’t fully consider how the product is likely to be used, says Lee. “A lot of devices for older people such as emergency alarm systems are simply not used. They are often seen as a sign of dependence, and many users won’t wear them in the bathroom or outside where a lot of falls and other emergencies happen.”

Voice agents and social robots

Voice enabled devices with are often proposed as a solution for easing the home technology learning curve. Yet the technology may need to improve before we see widespread adoption by seniors.

“Voice interfaces can be an a more intuitive and conversational way for older adults to interface with technology than touch controls,” says Lee. “Yet, hearing loss is a challenge and voice agents can have a hard time understanding older people with speaking difficulties.”

One extension of voice agents -- social robots -- are another new technology touted for elder homecare. “A social robot could keep older people company while the caregiver is away and keep them entertained and connected with the community,” says Lee.

At this point, however, Lee sees social robots as more of a complement to caregiving than a replacement. “There are certain things that only a family caregiver can do,” she says. “In a recent study we did on how older family members are assisted in daily tasks, we found that many tasks involve personal contact. Caregivers often feel uneasy trusting another person or tool to perform their role.”

As with other technologies offered to older people, the proper application of the technology can be as important as design details. “We should always be thinking about the context of use -- the social issues and how technology is delivered in the market,” says Lee.