Monday, December 19, 2011

"Me Want Cookies," Cookie Monster

Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o'clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap.  
                Barbara Jordan, the first African-American Woman elected to the House of Representatives                                                                                       

This is another page from the book dummy, and I chose it because, like many of us, Aunt Ruth is busy baking for the holidays.  As I think about this season and Aunt Ruth's way of life, her operating system of goodness and giving comes to mind.  

She cooks to make people happy.  

Imagine that?

Happy Holidays to each and every one of you from Aunt Ruth and Me

(if you would like a cookie recipe from Aunt Ruth, she'll be happy to share.  just leave a request here or directly to

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Let's Make A Deal

For 21 years, those gathered in our home write into a Book of Thanks by answering a question which I pose.  This year, we wrote our wishes in the book, and it prompted the idea of asking Aunt Ruth to make a video about hers.

For all those who love Aunt Ruth and follow this blog, she sends the following wishes: (I couldn't choose which clip to share, so in the spirit of Thanksgiving abundance, I included both of them!)

Aunt Ruth and I send our gratitude to all of those who enjoy the blog and sincerely thank each and every one of you for being a part of "our family."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Space Between

The Space Between
Your heart and mine
Is the space we'll fill with time
The Space Between...dave matthews band

My mother, Leah, and her sister were very close.  They built their houses across the street from one another at the end of a dead end road. My sisters and my cousins had a lot of fun deciding where to have dinner!  I was born 6 years after my middle sister and 11 from my eldest, so there was a large space between which we have spent the rest of our lives filling in with time, tears, laughter, support, and love.

My dad died when I was 3, and my mom remarried.  We moved to another city, but Leah and Ruth cared for one another as if there was no space between.  These photos were taken at the last party my mom had before she died.  All the guests posed in front of "little Leah," and I just love the off kilter photo of Aunt Ruth with her sweetie of over 60 years, my Uncle Bob.  Uncle Bob died a year before my mom, 11 years ago.

Aunt Ruth lives life with determination in the face of sadness and loss, and I appreciate that one of the reasons she goes forward  is that she filled all the spaces in her life by loving others through community service, dinner parties, phone calls, and unsolicited acts of kindness.  

I am grateful for the lessons I am learning from Aunt Ruth.  My sister moved away 4 years ago, and because of Aunt Ruth's influence, we filled in our space between to bridge distance with love.  

Thanks, Aunt Ruth for reminding me to "always have love in my life."  Perhaps, you can relate to this lesson in your own life.

my big sister giving me a lift

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Somewhere to Run to; Somewhere to Hide

I have been asked what lesson I learned from Aunt Ruth that changed me. 

 "I accept that life isn't easy.  I have my faith, but mostly I have a will to live, and that will comes from loving people."

This post is a reminder that lessons fade.  I forget that life isn't easy, until life reminds me.  I forget about my spirituality or the solace of faith, and then a close friend dies unexpectedly, and I look for guidance.  I find myself hurt, disappointed, or at odds with someone's perspective that differs from my own, and I harken back, time and time again to the importance of loving people.  

Aunt Ruth is my island, my beacon, and my map.  Her 92 years hold recipes filled with ingredients to make life meaningful, sweeter, and acceptable even when it holds illness, arguments, bad news, financial woes, or a dinner party that has me seated next to someone with political views I abhor.

If you have your own Aunt Ruth, I know how lucky you are.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

I Could Have, Would Have, Should Have....

Aunt Ruth and I have blogged a lot about the importance of friends...hers!   I haven't mentioned how much getting to know her friends has meant to me.  The women on each side of Aunt Ruth are all in their nineties, and last night, I had the honor of photographing the birthday queen, Jean, as she celebrated her 90th birthday with her family and life-long friends.  

Jean is an accomplished baker, pianist, singer, and all-around pal.  See that smile on her face?  She has it all the time, and it generates a similar response in those who know her.  I would never have crossed her path without picking up my camera to photograph Aunt Ruth, and oh how much I would have missed.

Without a doubt, my life is surely better (and more fattening) from spending time with Aunt Ruth and her welcoming friends, so here's to the 90's, friends, family, and the joy of being behind the lens.

I left the party far sooner than the rest of the dancing guests, but I will never forget the tributes, the tunes, or the collective wisdom on that dance floor.  

I think I will call a friend....

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Just Let it Grow....

Summer solstice. Produce stands.  Aunt Ruth's terrace!  That's the place I go when I long for companionship that is nurturing and easy. 

Like you, I read about aging and the importance of socialization as if this need is more important to "the elderly" than to the "rest of us."  One of the many lessons I have learned from photographing, listening to, eating with, and enjoying Aunt Ruth is that my life is richer, happier, and more meaningful from time spent with Aunt Ruth.  

At 92, Aunt Ruth is often grieving from the loss of a neighbor or a life-long friend.  I share my own worries about loved ones.  She listens, nods, smiles, and offers lessons from a well-lived life.  We comfort each other.  We sit on the terrace covered in carefully tended flowers and enjoy casual conversation with a tenderness born from unconditional love that soothes and warms.

I even take a short nap.  Aunt Ruth watches me sleep.

Ah, summer.  Ah, Aunt Ruth! 

Friday, June 3, 2011

One Thing I Know For Sure...

I've been feeling a little less than lately, so I had dinner at Aunt Ruth's last night.  I know that Oprah has been the nation's therapist, ultimate gift giver, inspiration, and teacher of best lives for so many, but for me, it's Aunt Ruth! ( All right, so I also like Oprah and so does Aunt Ruth)

Aunt Ruth and I were sitting in her living room talking about the usual topics ranging from the economy to her current discovery of cutting up those small cucumbers you can get at Mark's and putting them into a jar of leftover pickle juice to make some swell snacks, when I found myself asking, "Aunt Ruth, what do you know for sure?"

Without hesitation, she said:

1.  Time doesn't ask if you want more time.  It keeps going on like a river, so you better take advantage of it!

2.  I know for sure that I have many good friends.  They are vital to my life, and I have had many of the same friends since I was three.

Then, there was a pause....and she said:

3.  I know for sure that getting old is very hard to accept.  When I was young, I never thought I'd get old.  I know for sure that I have had to accept being old, otherwise I would turn into a miserable old lady, and there are already enough of them!

4.  I know for sure that you have to like to eat to be a good cook.  You must taste while you cook to know if what you're making is any good.

5.  I know for sure that being an aunt is easier than being a parent.  I don't have any responsibility as an aunt.

6.  I know for sure that being a wife means being truthful.

7.  I know for sure that to be a good sister you must love each other, but even more important, you must respect and help each other.  I adored my older sister, and I miss her every day.

We sat in silence for a while, and she smiled and said,

"Honey, what I know for sure is that love is the most important thing in your life.  It is the greatest gift.

Here's to Loving Aunt Ruth.....and her sweet family....

Monday, March 28, 2011

Hope Springs

Aunt Ruth believes that life is more delicious when shared.  I just hung up the phone with her and learned that Connie and she are baking cookies to box and deliver to friends.  

Last week, I was really tired and a bit woe-is-me-ish when I decided to channel for what has become my inner Aunt Ruth.  Instead of throwing a pity party which always has one guest, the hostess (that's me), I decided to fire up the oven, grab the sautee pan, and make a casserole, cupcakes, and even appetizers to give to a close friend whose family illness and 3 jobs hasn't  allowed her much time for meal preparation.

I felt so Aunt Ruth.  Humming as I cooked and smiling with each whiff of food, I forgot my cares.  As you can see from the laughing ladies at one of Aunt Ruth's parties, she has that effect on people.

Magic?  Try it and let us know...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Worth Repeating

In the last 48 hours, I watched as over 700 photographers became a part of a movement to donate some of their work in order to raise money through auction to aid Japan.  The posts repeated this refrain, "Thank you for the opportunity to help."  Aline Smithson, creator of and Crista Dix at Wallspace Gallery and others worked tirelessly to offer us the chance to make a difference. (see

I am reminded of the day I asked Aunt Ruth how she stayed determined during a life of joy and tremendous loss.  She said, "My faith helps me, but I accept that life isn't easy.  You must have a will to live, and that will comes from loving people."


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

2.5 months till 92....but who's counting?

There were three of us photographers working at The Ninetieth birthday party 2 years ago this May.  These are some of the moments captured by the talented, Sarah Balch.  I'm in the orange jacket with the black-and-white film camera doing the final shots for loving aunt ruth.  Three photographers are required when the hostess invites 165 guests!  I've said this before, but I don't even know that many people except in a virtual way on Facebook!

With Aunt Ruth's 92nd birthday approaching, I am reminded that this project began with a party and ended with a party, but loving Aunt Ruth will never end.  When I asked Aunt Ruth if I could photograph her for a long-term endeavor, she said, "Sure, I'll have a tea party, so you can meet some of my friends."  

She continues to teach me the importance of her daily mantra which I am in the mood to repeat.  "I accept that life is not easy.  You must have a will to live, and that will comes from loving people.  Aunt Ruth has friends of all ages, ethnicities, abilities,and sizes.   She does love them all.  Tea parties, Seders, Cocktail Parties, Hanukah, Birthday Parties, and...the will to live comes from loving and sharing that love.  She does.  She does.

I'm trying...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chief Memory Officer


I recently spent time with a close friend who told me that when we collect our family stories, photos, and ephemera,we become Chief Memory Officers.   In the case of loving aunt ruth, I think I am the Admin to the CMO, Aunt Ruth, whose memory remains tack sharp for all the answers to my myriad of questions.  Aunt Ruth kept all of the photos, slides, and albums and has been generous with my need to know, to hear, to listen, and most importantly to learn from all of her lessons.

There is no way for me to express my gratitude to Aunt Ruth for her patience in being endlessly photographed, but I hope she knows that my heart is swollen with the magic she has bestowed.  Our elders have so much to teach us, and since I have become a...gulp...gasp...sputter...senior...I find that I want to know how to continue to age from a teacher whose life is lived with fierce passion.

I am not alone in my quest.  In today's New York Times, there is a wonderful article which I share.  Please read it and let me know what you think.  It is all about the importance of photos and story.  

Mining Memories to Preserve the Past

Her memory is creaky, Dwania Kyles insisted, and most of the photographs that help unlock it are stored in her computer. But recently, sitting in a warren of rooms in Harlem as the light outside faded, she had a rush of recollections about her family and the night that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not come to dinner.
Ms. Kyles and Thomas Allen Harris, a documentary filmmaker, had donned white gloves to thumb through photographs of her parents in high school. “My parents left the promised land to jump into the lion’s den,” she said of their move from Chicago to Memphis to join the civil rights movement. On the evening in 1968 that King was expected at their home for soul food, her father, the Rev. Samuel B. Kyles, ended up with him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where King was felled by an assassin.
Mr. Harris and Ms. Kyles, a 55-year-old wellness consultant and songwriter who lives in Harlem, were in his office ferreting out information for the filmmaker’s Digital Diaspora Family Reunion project. Since 2009, Mr. Harris has traveled the country collecting photographs and stories from families, then putting those and filmed interviews onto his Web site.
Now, Mr. Harris is taking his show onto the stage, presenting the stories he’s collected to a live audience using interactive media and old-fashioned storytelling. On Sunday afternoon, after dry runs around the country, the show will have its debut at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. (The event will be streamed live to the Web site.)
At Harlem Stage and in future reunion cities, the enlarged photographs and accompanying stories will be presented to audiences who will be invited to trade family histories, ask questions and even identify people and locations. The project will also work as community history, with its glances at the places and people that define neighborhoods.
“It’s survivors and ‘firsts,’ ” the effervescent Mr. Harris said of the people he is documenting, few of them celebrities. “It’s the stories in history books and films about civil rights.”
As a kind of curator/master of ceremonies, Mr. Harris, who has made two acclaimed documentaries, “The 12 Disciples of Nelson Mandela,” about South African exiles who were part of the African National Congressand the anti-apartheid movement, and “É Minha Cara/That’s My Face,” about spirituality, looks to figure out which stories enlarge and provide context for many aspects of black life, from immigration to education to military service. “We are living with gold — one person in Atlanta came with a truckload of images dating back to the 1850s,” he said.
Photographs and stories can also be directly uploaded to the Web site, which features interviews with scholars, news about family reunions and images by black photographers.
A Harvard graduate who is in his ’40s, grew up in the Bronx and spent time in East Africa, Mr. Harris had long encouraged fans of his work to collect their own family stories, as he has done in his deeply personal films. It struck him that social media could be used to archive and share the results. His younger brother, Lyle Ashton Harris, is a prominent photographer and artist known for work that fuses aesthetic considerations and sociopolitical observation.
“All of my work is about identity, about how we represent ourselves to ourselves,” Thomas Allen Harris said.
“We take grandma for granted.” he said. “We need to understand that instead of looking outside ourselves for value, we can look inside.”
On Wednesday through Friday, Mr. Harris will set up shop at the Gatehouse, at 150 Convent Avenue, so people can bring him their family photographs and other documents (reservations are required, though there is a waiting list: email or call 212-281-6002). The photographs Mr. Harris selects will be digitized and put onto a DVD for their owner. All will be shown as part of a slide show at Harlem Stage, and some will be expanded into an interactive film for the Web site.
“The history of African-Americans has been told by so many people other than ourselves, and even in the telling it becomes abstract,” said Pat Cruz, the executive director of Harlem Stage. “With our family photographs, this opens up some doors as well as some eyes into what we are, on an intimate level.”
Recently, Mr. Harris received funding to complete another feature film, “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.” It is an exploration of how black communities and photographers have used the camera as a tool for social change. Mr. Harris planned to show clips from the film at Harlem Stage on Sunday.
Both Digital Diaspora and “Through a Lens” offer visual counterpoint to the stereotypical, caricatured images of African-Americans that still circulate, said Deborah Willis, an art photographer and historian of African-American art and a professor at New York University. For participants, “it creates a reconsideration of what it means to preserve family history,” Professor Willis said. “Their excitement about sharing their history comes from a sense of providing evidence for those who might feel excluded, who feel they are not part of the larger discussion.”
The experience of telling and sharing stories and images can be revelatory and therapeutic, some said.
“You have to tell your story,” Mr. Harris told Ms. Kyles the other day, nudging her to recall that her father had knotted King’s tie an hour before he stepped out on the balcony.
“We were so excited about him coming to the house,” she said. Telling Mr. Harris about her time in Memphis, which included the lonely and humiliating experience of desegregating a school, was “healing,” Ms. Kyles said afterward.
Lana Turner, a 61-year-old real-estate agent who lives in Harlem, brought photographs of her parents to Mr. Harris’s office. Her father worked as a chauffeur, she said. She spread out images of him posed in front of an elegant, vintage car, and a 1952 photo with a group of natty men in suits who belonged to a chauffeurs’ club. Her mother, a chambermaid and a cook, wore a tiara in a photograph in which she and several other women were adorned in elegant white dresses.
“People took off their chauffeur’s uniforms or maid’s hats and they made joy out of a day that might have been drudgery,” Ms. Turner said softly.
The Turners were the kinds of unsung heroes who helped move the country forward, Mr. Harris said. “We need these stories,” he said, “to let the next generation know they come from a people who have made it by their bootstraps and made it for everyone around them, regardless of color and race.”

Aunt Ruth and I hope you are enjoying our collaboration.  Here's to "preserving the past before it is lost" and understanding that the time to learn from it is right this minute.

(thanks to the incredibly talented elizabeth glorioso for taking this beautiful photograph.

Monday, February 14, 2011

How Do You Know You're In Love?

"How do you know when you're in love?" I asked Aunt Ruth.

"Oh, that's an easy question.  You know you're in love when you can't think about anyone or anything else."

Happy Valentine's Day from Aunt Ruth and me...

Monday, February 7, 2011

Aunt Ruth and Age Empathy

This article in yesterday's New York Times got me wondering if loving aunt ruth is my own "age empathy suit!"  How glad I am that I have put it on, because I am in that boomer group who doesn't want to buy an "old lady" product.  Neither does Aunt Ruth!  If ever there was a time to pay attention to the lessons our elders teach us, it is clearly now!

Please let me know what you think. 

Thanks, honey and Aunt Ruth

In a Graying Population, Business Opportunity

IT’S not easy being gray.
For the first time ever, getting out of a car is no picnic. My back is hunched. And I’m holding on to handrails as I lurch upstairs.
I’m 45. But I feel decades older because I’m wearing an Age Gain Now Empathy System, developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Agnes, they call it.
At first glance, it may look like a mere souped-up jumpsuit. A helmet, attached by cords to a pelvic harness, cramps my neck and spine. Yellow-paned goggles muddy my vision. Plastic bands, running from the harness to each arm, clip my wingspan. Compression knee bands discourage bending. Plastic shoes, with uneven Styrofoam pads for soles, throw off my center of gravity. Layers of surgical gloves make me all thumbs.
The age-empathy suit comes from the M.I.T. AgeLab, where researchers designed Agnes to help product designers and marketers better understand older adults and create innovative products for them. Many industries have traditionally shied away from openly marketing to people 65 and older, viewing them as an unfashionable demographic group that might doom their product with young and hip spenders. But now that Americans are living longer and more actively, a number of companies are recognizing the staying power of the mature market.
“Aging is a multidisciplinary phenomenon, and it requires new tools to look at,” Joseph F. Coughlin, director of AgeLab, tells me, encumbered and fatigued after trying to conduct a round of interviews while wearing Agnes. Viewed through yellow goggles, the bright colors of Professor Coughlin’s bow tie appear dim. “Agnes is one of those tools,” he says.
AgeLab, like a handful of other research centers at universities and companies around the country, develops technologies to help older adults maintain their health, independence and quality of life. Companies come here to understand their target audience or to have their products, policies and services studied.
Often, visitors learn hard truths at AgeLab: many older adults don’t like products, like big-button phones, that telegraph agedness. “The reality is such that you can’t build an old man’s product, because a young man won’t buy it and an old man won’t buy it,” Professor Coughlin says.
The idea is to help companies design and sell age-friendly products — with customizable font size, say, or sound speed — much the way they did with environmentally friendly products. That means offering enticing features and packaging to appeal to a certain demographic without alienating other consumer groups. Baked potato chips are just one example of products that appeal to everybody but skew toward older people. Toothpastes that promise whitening or gum health are another.
Researchers at AgeLab are studying the stress levels of older adults who operate a hands-free parallel-parking system developed by Ford Motor. Although this ultrasonic-assisted system may make backing up easier for older adults who can’t turn their necks to the same degree they once did, the car’s features — like blind-spot detection and a voice-activated audio system — are intended to appeal to all drivers who enjoy smart technology.
“With any luck, if I am successful,” Professor Coughlin says, “retailers won’t know they are putting things on the shelves for older adults.”
THE first of about 76 million baby boomers in the United States turned 65 in January. They are looking forward to a life expectancy that is higher than that of any previous generation.
The number of people 65 and older is expected to more than double worldwide, to about 1.5 billion by 2050 from 523 million last year, according to estimates from the United Nations. That means people 65 and over will soon outnumber children under 5 for the first time ever. As a consequence, many people may have to defer their retirement — or never entirely retire — in order to maintain sustainable incomes.
Many economists view such an exploding population of seventy- and eighty-somethings not as an asset, but as a looming budget crisis. After all, by one estimate, treating dementia worldwide already costs more than $600 billion annually.
“No other force is likely to shape the future of national economic health, public finances and policy making,” analysts at Standard & Poor’s wrote in a recent report, “as the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is aging.”
The S.&P. analysis, called “Global Aging 2010,” warns that many countries are not prepared to cover the pension and health care costs of so many additional retirees; if those governments do not radically alter their age-related spending policies in the next few decades, the report said, national debts will grow to rival — or even more than double — gross domestic product.
But longevity-focused researchers including Professor Coughlin, whose blog is called Disruptive Demographics, are betting that baby boomers, unlike generations past, will not go gentle into the good night of long-term care. In fact, a few research groups at institutions like Oregon Health & Science University, M.I.T. and Stanford, along with foundations and the private sector, are devising policies and systems for an alternate scenario: older adults living independently at home for longer periods, whether that home is a private residence or a senior community.     (this is aunt ruth)
Devices for I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up catastrophes, they say, represent the old business of old age. The new business of old age involves technologies and services that promote wellness, mobility, autonomy and social connectivity. These include wireless pillboxes that transmit information about patients’ medication use, as well as new financial services, like “Second Acts” from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, that help people plan for longer lives and second careers.
Together, those kinds of products and services are already a multibillion-dollar market, industry analysts say. And if such innovations prove to promote health and independence, delaying entry into long-term care, the potential savings to the health care system could be even greater.
That’s the upbeat message that Eric Dishman, the global director of health innovation at Intel, has been trying to get across to policy makers and industry executives for more than a decade. A charismatic health policy wonk, Mr. Dishman has held audiences at TedMed conferences spellbound with his lecture on the subject, in which he carts around an old-school rotary telephone, a prop dramatizing the need to connect older adults and technology.
In his office in Beaverton, Ore., he demonstrates some prototypes, like a social networking system for senior housing centers, that older Americans are already testing. Often, he says, field studies of his gadgets result in “success catastrophes” — the devices prove so popular that testers and their families are loath to return them. The people testing the social network devices, for example, asked for extra models for off-campus friends.
“There is an enormous market opportunity to deliver technology and services that allow for wellness and prevention and lifestyle enhancement,” he says. “Whichever countries or companies are at the forefront of that are going to own the category.”
Industry is beginning to hear his message. Last month, a group including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, PfizerJohnson & Johnson and Aegon said it had formed the Global Coalition on Aging, to help governments and industries better handle the age boom. “Companies are starting to think about how they can be age friendly much the same way they have been thinking about how they could be environmentally friendly over the last couple of decades,” says Andy Sieg, the head of retirement services at Bank of America.
THE Mirabella, a new $130 million high-rise in the South Waterfront section of Portland, Ore., may be the greenest luxury retirement community in the nation.
The building has solar-heated hot water, a garage where valets stack cars in racks atop one another, sensors that turn off the lights when stairways are empty and platinum certification from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, the group that sets national benchmarks for sustainable building.
But never mind the free loaner Priuses in the garage. The Mirabella also aspires to be the grayest — by providing an opportunity to develop and test the latest home-health technology and design concepts for older adults.
The building’s architects, Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects, turned on its head the idea of putting retirees out to pasture. This urban high-rise, conveniently located next to Oregon Health and Science University, enables residents to stay as healthy, engaged and socially connected as possible, says Jeff Los, a principal in the firm.
“Historically, upscale senior housing has been a rural three-story entity spread over 30 acres,” he says. “This is a 30-story building on one acre with a streetcar stop at the front door.”
The developers, Pacific Retirement Services, bought land from the university with the idea of encouraging research next door, at the school’s Oregon Center for Aging & Technology, also known as Orcatech. As part of that project, the company spent nearly a half-million dollars to install fiber optic cables so that Mirabella residents could be encouraged to volunteer for a “living laboratory” program in which wireless motion sensors, installed in their apartments, track their mobility and, by extension, their health status in real time.
Older adults in other parts of the city are already participating in the program; researchers hope to prove that continually monitoring them can help predict and prevent problems like falls, or even social withdrawal, says Dr. Jeffrey Kaye, a neurology professor who directs Orcatech.
And some residents may eventually want to modify the monitoring system so that they can download and make use of their own health data, Mr. Los says.
In fact, even before Mirabella opened last fall, residents asked for adjustments to the building. They demanded space in the garage for their kayaks, recalls Mr. Dishman, who serves on the building’s steering committee.
“Baby boomers are going to be very different seniors,” he says.
ABOUT 30 older adults in the greater Portland area have volunteered to participate in the Orcatech living laboratory program.
Dorothy Rutherford, 86, a petite redhead with a deadpan wit, is one of them. And she is a model for the kind of independent aging, abetted by technology, that the researchers hope to encourage.
Her bone-colored earrings — a gift from a dentist who made them from denture material — dangle as she gives me a tour of the equipment that researchers have installed in her apartment. Sensors that monitor the speed and frequency of her activity dot the ceilings and cling to furniture, appliances and doors.
“I have no worries about privacy whatsoever,” she declares, waving at the ceiling. “They are just sensors, not video cameras.”
A wireless smart pillbox reminds her to take her daily vitamins. A computer on which she plays specific word and number games tracks her daily scores.
But her favorite experiment so far involved an anthropomorphic robot from Vgo Communications, nicknamed Celia, that was equipped with a video screen. Mrs. Rutherford’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter in Wyoming could remotely operate Celia any time they wanted to follow her around for a video chat.
Mrs. Rutherford, a retired waitress, already uses Skype to talk to family members. But Skype is stationary, she says, while the robot conveniently wheels itself from room to room.
“When I saw Celia the robot, I thought there are all kinds of possibilities to get you set up at home,” she says. “Why would somebody go to a retirement community if they can figure out a way to keep people home longer?”
Even so, the pilot program is not inexpensive: it costs about $1,000 to set up each participant with a computer and $6 sensors, plus $2,600 a year for technical support, Internet access and home visits from researchers. Monitoring costs vary. (The robot, which is not a regular feature of the program and which participants tried for about a week each, costs $6,000 plus a monthly $100 service fee.)
The continuous monitoring of people like Mrs. Rutherford may point the way to more preventive health care — an alternative to the pattern of doctors seeing elderly patients on an infrequent basis, often treating them only after they have developed acute illnesses or had accidents. “What if there were thousands of homes around America that had these simple systems in place?” Dr. Kaye of Orcatech says about the monitoring system.
The idea is to determine whether changes in daily habits — like walking speed, posture, sleep, pill taking, computer game scores — can accurately predict things like cognitive decline or balance problems, allowing doctors to intervene before someone falls and, say, breaks a hip.
Intel and General Electric recently started a joint venture, Intel-GE Care Innovations, to develop technologies that help older adults stay independent. They are already marketing the Intel Health Guide, a home monitoring system that helps doctors remotely manage patients’ care.
There’s just one obstacle: the marketplace for age independence technology is in its infancy. Because of ageism, Mr. Dishman says, many retailers aren’t ready to make space for such products and many companies don’t even want to develop them.
“Life enhancement technology for boomers is a chicken-and-egg problem,” he says. Is “the market going to take the first plunge, or are companies going to create technologies without knowing whether we can sell it?”
He has been on a mission, he says, to have Congress put the issue on the national agenda; he’d also like to see the White House establish a commission on aging. The European Union, he points out, has already committed more than one billion euros to study technology and aging.
But so far, the officials he has met with have not taken up the cause, he says. In the laundry list of initiatives in his State of the Union address last month, President Obama pushed clean energy, not gray tech.
Mr. Dishman asks: “What do we need to do for aging and gray technology to have the same urgency and investment that global warming” and green technology have?
GRAMPA. Golden ager. Elderly person. Senior citizen.
Americans have come to associate agedness with frailty and disability rather than with institutional memory and expertise.
“People somehow assume that when we are young, we are vital,” says Ken Dychtwald, the C.E.O. of AgeWave, a research and consulting organization that focuses on population aging. “Then, when we pass 40, we are on a downward slope to death.”
For more than a quarter-century, Mr. Dychtwald, 60 and thus himself a baby boomer, has been trying to rebrand aging as a positive phenomenon. He’s coined a word — “middlescence” — to convey later life as a transformative stage, like adolescence, in which people have free time and an increased interest in trying new experiences. He also came up with an antidote to retirement: “rehirement.” (aunt ruth would agree!)
Now that the oldest baby boomers are turning 65, he says, their sheer numbers may attract industries that had earlier shied away. “If you are a Fortune 100 company, or an inventor in a garage, where are you going to find another demographic that is that large, that robust in spending power, that open to new possibilities, and that underserved?” he asks. “There’s nothing to rival it.”
In 2009, for example, baby-boomer households in the United States spent about $2.6 trillion, according to estimates from AgeWave based on a consumer expenditure survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But so far, he says, very few companies have applied creative intelligence to understanding older adults and developing game-changing technologies, services, experiences and even new careers for them.
Imagine a new real estate sector, he says, that caters to the former hippies among baby boomers who want to form retirement communities with friends by buying six-bedroom communal penthouses in Chicago or farms in Vermont. Or Internet cemeteries, he says, that would preserve video libraries of people’s lives for their descendants to enjoy.
“Rather than viewing maturity as an opportunity to sell people a golf membership or an arthritis medicine,” he says, “since a person who turns 60 has another 20 years, why not create educational programs whereby people can be motivated to go out, learn new skills and have an encore?” (aunt ruth has never stopped learning)
AGNES, the age empathy suit developed by the M.I.T. AgeLab, is calibrated to simulate the dexterity, mobility, strength and balance of a 74-year-old. My empathy has clearly deepened after a few hours of road-testing it. But, sheepishly, I still want to shed the suit and its instant add-on decades.
Professor Coughlin started AgeLab in 1999 to address what he calls “the longevity paradox” — the idea that, while people in many developed countries now live several decades longer than those born a century ago, very few policy makers, institutions and industries are dedicated to helping people make those extra decades healthy and productive.
More than a decade later, with boomers starting to turn 65, experts like Professor Coughlin hope to make gray the new green. Their job would be easier if it were fun to wear Agnes.