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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tools can help aged keep independence

Sometimes a simple tool to help someone put on a pair of socks or open a jar can keep an elderly person or someone with disabilities living independently in their own home for longer.

Washington State University researchers are finding many people don’t know about these helpful devises and tools that are readily available on the market such as talking medication reminders, rocking knives to make cutting food easier, large grip utensils, electric door openers, money identifiers and automatic shutoff electrical outlets.

That’s why students in the Department of Psychology and College of Nursing recently made a series of informational videos highlighting these common tools that can assist people with everything from hearing, vision and remembering important tasks like taking medications to daily duties such as cooking, dressing and using the bathroom.

For many elderly, the discovery means freedom.

Psychology graduate student Joyce Tam recounts a recent conversation with a Spokane woman who attended one of the school’s presentations on assistive technologies. Tam said during a follow up phone call the woman told her, “I didn’t realize these things can provide me freedom. It opened up a new world for me.”

This revelation drove home the importance of increasing awareness of these products, Tam said.

“I almost cried,” she said. “People don’t talk about that with most of our research projects.”

Currently the eight categories of videos – medication management, daily living, fall prevention, memory, hearing, vision, communication and mobility – are only available on WSU’s website after participants create an account and agree to take a survey to help researches understand why more people aren’t using these available and usually inexpensive assistive technologies that ultimately can help people stay in their homes longer.

After the survey period, Tam said the videos will remain online for anyone to view. Right now researchers just need to gather information on why people aren’t using the products and figure out how to better educate people about their uses and existence.

Besides the online survey, students are also making presentations and showing the informational videos to regional groups at senior centers, disease support groups and other venues to help promote the often life-changing technology. They are also focusing on getting the information to caregivers and health professionals.

“These things are hugely valuable for a large percentage of the population,” said professor Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe.

The National Institutes of Health reported in 2010 that assistive technologies are one way disability can be reduced, along with improved medical treatments and positive behavioral changes among other improvements.

Tam said she knows some people won’t want to create an account online to participate in the survey and that stigma often comes with using assistive tools. She hopes that once people learn how available, inexpensive and easy to use most of the products are that more people will embrace the idea, especially if it means living independently longer.

Although many of the tools are inexpensive, some of the more high-tech devices such as motion-activated faucets, software that reads computer screens, swivel bathtub transfer chair are spendy. Both Washington and Idaho have federal programs to increase the availability of assistive technology devices and services for the aging and people with disabilities and can sometimes help with costs.

It’s too early in the survey process to know whether the video program will help more people access assistive tools and devises yet Tam said the feedback she’s getting from participants at the workshops is positive.

Tam said during another presentation a lady was enamored with a “reacher,” an armlike extension with a grabber on the end used to reach items high in cupboards or shelves.

“She bought four or five of them for Christmas presents,” Tam said, adding with a laugh the woman even used her to pick apple this fall.

Erica Curless wrote this article with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by AARP.