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Greene: Laid Up

After taking a header down the stairs a couple of weeks ago, I found myself limping around on crutches, with a sore shoulder and bruised ribs. I realized I had (literally) stumbled into an ideal disability laboratory. This is what it’s like to be immobile, and in pain, I thought. Welcome to old age.

Couch-bound under icepacks, I had lots of time to read, including The New York Times, where I came upon an article about the entrepreneurial eagerness to tap the elderly market.

The good news is that recent advances in telemedicine have been stunning. You can put a sensor on a home bound patient’s finger and send his vitals via the Internet to a remote care-giver. Such breakthroughs are especially useful in rural areas, where long distance monitoring can save a great deal of effort, time and money. And most importantly, patients can remain in their homes.

In the last three years alone, 1500 start-ups have appeared, selling everything from souped-up emergency buttons that when pressed, summon an ambulance, to devices that monitor how often a patient opens her fridge door. The goal is to help elders live independently.

The problem, states Stephen Johnston, Co-Founder of Aging 2.0, is that many of the brilliant young people doing the inventing don’t actually know much about the demographic they’re so eager to serve.

For instance, the fridge door monitor is designed to tell a remote caregiver if the patient in question is eating - laudable enough, but not foolproof. I, for one, don’t keep my bread and peanut butter in the fridge. It might be better to arrange for meals on wheels.

And there’s a more subtle and troubling difference between the age groups. Younger people seem much less concerned about their privacy, than, say, us Baby Boomers. Maybe it was the multiple readings of 1984 I did as a kid, but I’m among those who are distinctly uncomfortable with the Big Brother aspect of all this scrutiny.

Luckily I have a remedy for the disconnect between young inventors and their geriatric market: Disable one arm and the opposite leg, then spend a week on the couch. The idea is to have to plan carefully for a trip to the bathroom. Suddenly the fridge will seem like Outer Mongolia. Even getting off a low-slung chair with one good leg becomes an challenging task.

Then I would have the guinea pig make a list of what she really needs. My guess is that a fridge monitor won’t be a priority.