ORONO,Maine — As part of their initiative to assist the statewide aging crisis, The University of Maine, Orono, showcased its advanced aging research in an open house tour last week that featured both virtual technology solutions and tangible prototypes that would allow Maine’s elderly population to thrive without leaving their homes.
“[The University of Maine] is looking at aging throughout the entire system of university research operations and that’s pretty phenomenal,” Sandra Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, said. “I haven’t seen this kind of commitment to aging research from an entire University.”
The cross-disciplinary initiative, Successful Aging Initiative for Living, was pioneered by the University to champion a collaborative investigation into the research and development of ways to hinder the effects of an aging population, both on the individuals themselves and the communities they belong to.
According the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine is the oldest state in the country with a median age of 42.7 years, five years older that the national median age. Sixteen percent of Maine population is 65 or older, and of those 29,000 are 85 or older. With an increasingly aging population comes an increasing need for long-term and assisted living care.
“I think that because of the fact that [Maine] has such a high aging population, [Maine] has a high population of Baby Boomers, and the fact that [Maine] is such a rural state, any research that is done here will be forefront research for the nation,” Markwood said.
At the Oct. 30 tour, the campus’ Virtual Environments and Multimodal Interaction Laboratory, as well as the Advanced Manufacturing Center, opened its doors to the Maine Health Access Foundation so that MeHAF members could see how UMaine is creating technologies that would allow for Maine’s elderly population to age in a way that is most comfortable and convenient.
The state-of-the-art virtual environments lab, run by the Computing and Information Sciences Department, is home to the virtual and augmented reality technology that is allowing for researchers to observe first-hand the issues that aging creates. The Real Time Edge Detection goggles created at the virtual environments lab simulate the effects of visual impairments that many in the elderly population suffer from, which create real life dangers in terms of being able to remain mobile.
“UMaine is an educational place, right? We’re supposed to be not only learning but also teaching. Using these [Edge Detection] demos, we can simulate cataracts and we can simulate scotoma and that allows people to experience and understand more the questions that aging research needs to answer,” said Jake Lavoie, a fourth-year art student who works with the VEMI lab in developing 3-dimensional models for their virtual reality simulators.
As one of the few virtual reality labs in the country, and the only virtual reality lab in Maine, the VEMI Lab is not only pioneering the way for virtual technology in regards to aging research, but is giving students first hand experience in an emerging field.
“I’ve been working in the field of aging for nearly 40 years and I’ve never seen the level of interest that we’re now seeing among our younger student population,” Len Kaye, Director of UMaine’s Center on Aging, said. “They’re building careers in researching and serving an older population.”
Other aging research currently underway at the VEMI Lab include a noninvasive tracking system that would be able to monitor elderly individuals in their home or in an assisted living facility. The noninvasive system is cheaper and less intrusive than typical camera monitoring, but is more effective than Life Alert systems because the electric sensors implanted around the individual’s space requires no action from the person being monitored.
“At the VEMI Lab, we specialize in looking at the way people move around spaces and how they use different senses,” Rick Corey, Director of the VEMI Lab, said. “[We’re] looking at creating an indoor navigation system that would be less intrusive than camera systems you would find in nursing homes. We find that when you have a camera on someone they act much differently than they would otherwise.”
The next phase of the tour shifted focus to the engineering research and development on aging conducted at the Advanced Manufacturing Center. The center was home to the engineering department’s traumatic head injury protection project, which seeks to create a more attractive solution to the issue of frequent falling that often happens among the elderly population.
The project is still in the manufacturing phase, but mechanical engineering students and faculty have developed a prototype material that is lighter than current forms of head injury protection, but just as functional.
“People who have repeated head injury are asked at home to wear helmets, but they don’t wear them, they don’t want to wear them. They’re heavy, they’re unsightly, and they’re stigmatizing,” Carol Kim, vice president of Research at UMaine, said. “A faculty member in mechanical engineering developed this new material, this honeycomb material that is very light and thin and absorbs impact really well.”
This new material can be made into a band-style of headgear rather than a large helmet, so individuals who are asked to wear head protection have an aesthetically pleasing option. The honeycomb material itself is extremely durable and hardens upon impact while remaining light to wear. These prototype headbands have the potential to turn a deadly fall into a minor concussion, and turn moderate falls into no injury at all.
While much of the research presented is technologically complete, developing commercial models may take time. This time will allow for researchers to make more home-friendly versions of their aging solutions.
“What I’d love to see in the next three to five years is that Maine is the model for the country [in terms of aging research]. People in Oregon, in Idaho and across the country, people are going to be asking, ‘Oh, what is Maine doing about this issue because they are the leaders in aging,’” Kim said.