Rogers Has Designs On Helping People Age Successfully
If previous generations had the goal of aging gracefully, Wendy Rogers wants to help older adults age successfully. That means allowing a booming section of the United States population to enjoy greater freedom of choice and opportunity throughout their entire life.
“I define successful aging as being able to do what you want, when you want, where you want, and with whom you want,” Rogers said. “Successful aging enables older adults to function effectively and independently, manage chronic conditions, maintain health and wellness goals, remain socially connected and engaged, and have a high quality of life.”
Rogers, who was invested as the Shahid and Ann Carlson Khan Professor in Applied Health Sciences on April 5, joined the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in January and is internationally renowned for her work in the area of technology and aging.
The population of Americans aged 65 years or older will double to about 72 million during the next 25 years and by 2030, older adults will account for approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population – both a result of longer life spans and aging baby boomers – according to “The State of Aging & Health in America 2013” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This extreme growth in the number of older adults has led to an array of questions for organizations throughout the world and has invigorated this field of research of which Rogers is a leader. Rogers has done extensive work in the area of human factors, or the study of how people interact with products, environments, and equipment.
“I first started studying aging in the context of understanding how older adults learn new skills,” Rogers said. “One of the skills older adults often have to learn is to interact with a new technology. Personal technologies in health care are becoming more prevalent and hold great promise for supporting older adults’ health care needs.”
Interdisciplinary Culture A Key For Rogers
Rogers – who joined Illinois as a result of a campus-wide Strategic Excellence Hiring initiative focused on health and wellness, with an emphasis on health, technology and aging – is leading a joint initiative with Illinois’ College of Engineering to develop technologies to help older adults live independently in their homes, an idea often referred to as “aging in place.”
This interdisciplinary approach was a large part in Rogers’ decision to leave Georgia Tech, where she had been a key researcher for nearly 20 years.
“It was absolutely critical,” Rogers said of the role that Illinois’ collaborative environment played in her decision to join the faculty. “We are trying to solve complex problems in our support of successful aging. That requires an interdisciplinary team of researchers, and it was clear to me when I visited that this culture was truly something that faculty members and administrators at Illinois were interested in and strongly supported. I’ve only been here for three months and I am so impressed with all of the potential collaborators across campus. This is a very exciting place to be.”
Another thing that resounded deeply with Rogers was the orientation of the College of Applied Health Sciences and its primary mission.
“As I was researching the position, I looked at the mission statement of the College of Applied Health Sciences. When I read it, I thought ‘That’s my mission. That’s what I want to do in my career. These are the kinds of things that I try to do.’”
Rogers has begun building relationships on campus that could lead to collaborations and, eventually, new developments in successful aging. She has begun developing the CHART – Collaborations in Health, Aging, Research, and Technology – Program to align campus researchers, industry partners and community groups in order to develop affordable, high-quality solutions alongside the older adults for whom they are intended.
“The College of Applied Health Sciences, specifically Associate Dean for Research Dr. Jeff Woods, has been instrumental in introducing me to individuals in a number of departments as well as in the Champaign-Urbana community. We will soon be planning events that will bring these individuals together to develop common research interests and enable us to submit large-scale interdisciplinary grant proposals.”
“I am confident that the relationship-building will move quickly as the University of Illinois has so many talented individuals who are interested in issues related to health, aging, and technology.”
Developing Useful Tools for Older Adults
One setting for some of those research interests will be the LIFE Home, or Living in Interactive Future Environments. Researchers will be able to outfit this space so that it resembles a home so they can investigate the innovations and adaptations that can improve older adults’ quality of life.
“This will be a multi-function space on campus designed to support research, education, and community outreach activities,” Rogers said. “It will be a simulated home environment for research; a classroom and learning event space; and it will support community involvement, industry partnerships, and collaborations with healthcare professionals.”
Rogers also is conducting research in the areas of robotics and health monitoring apps, two areas that could result in a variety of very helpful and beneficial applications.
“We are exploring fundamental issues in human-robot interaction for older adults that include understanding their needs that can be supported by robotic assistance, identifying barriers and facilitators to acceptance of robots in the home and healthcare environment, and understanding design issues that will influence successful communication between humans and robots to achieve a common goal.
“Health care apps are widespread but our analysis of the ones currently available have revealed that most of them are neither useful to nor usable by older adults. As a starting point, we are developing a set of design guidelines that developers can use to better meet the needs of older adults, with respect to the chronic conditions they have to manage, as well as their capabilities and limitations that influence their interactions with mobile apps.”
Bringing Generations Together
Throughout her body of work, Rogers seeks to bring together two generations on opposite ends of the age spectrum – college students and adults over 65. This benefits both groups, helping the students to see older adults outside a hospital or clinic setting while allowing those older adults to give students and researchers key insights to the technologies, programs, and services they are developing.
“We aim to improve the lives of older adults by supporting successful aging, broadly speaking,” Rogers said. “This means involving them in our research activities; I like to say we conduct research with older adults rather than for them. And by pairing students with healthy older adults, the students develop empathy for the issues the older adults deal with, rather than only interacting with sick, frail older people.”
Through her research, Rogers hopes to help the entire population age more successfully. However that may look.