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The Future is Gray, Small & Female: Disruptive Demographics and Transportation Tomorrow

11/02/2010 4:00 PM 4"237
Joseph F. Coughlin, Director, MIT AgeLab; Engineering Systems Division

Description: If the prospect of aging and infirmity seems remote, you could use some time with AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System), a wearable apparatus that approximates "what it feels like to be a 75"year"old woman." Joseph Coughlin's MIT AgeLab designed the suit to promote better understanding of the challenges of aging -- part of a larger effort to address the evolving demographic reality in the U.S., where a baby boomer turns 64 every seven seconds, 85"year"olds are the fastest growing age cohort, and most of the longest"lived will be women. Coughlin believes society must anticipate the needs of this rapidly emerging population, particularly where transportation is concerned.

Coughlin draws from a flurry of statistics a vivid portrait of the near future when great numbers of people, mainly women, will not only live longer, but alone. In the U.S., many of these seniors expect to continue working and playing, sometimes battling chronic illness, but above all, maintaining independence and freedom. Given these expectations, "What is driving?" asks Coughlin. "EverythingIt's the glue that holds life together."

Coughlin sees "transportation as a function of all the other activities you do." How then will an aging, frequently ailing, isolated population meet its needs for healthcare, shopping, work, leisure, especially when driving becomes a challenge, if not an impossibility?

Older drivers contending with stress or fatigue may turn to such automotive technology as the AwareCar, from Coughlin's lab, which can alert drivers if their performance flags at the wheel. Some communities have developed alternative transportation options for seniors who can't count on relatives or friends to shuttle them to appointments or shopping. Big box stores have begun to recognize that acres of parking lot and warehouse pose insuperable challenges to older folks, and are working on making their locations more convenient and navigable.

Coughlin cites additional ways society is beginning to accommodate the specific needs of the elderly, so as to sidestep the problems of transportation altogether. These include smart toilets that monitor human waste and upload information to disease management companies, signaling if a change in diet is indicated, and delivering appropriate foods; and home delivery of health care services and products by such retailers as Walgreens.

In spite of these promising moves, the sheer number of aging baby boomers who will need to get around in coming years spells trouble. "We are still going to have a major mobility gap in the U.S.," Coughlin believes, "even if we started yesterday and invested billions to work really fast."

About the Speaker(s): Joseph F. Coughlin is founding Director of the MIT AgeLab " a partnership between MIT, industry and the aging community to engineer innovative approaches and technologies to improve the quality of life of older adults and those that care for them.

Coughlin's research has been featured in Business Week, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Le Monde and ABC News, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and CNN World.

He has assisted numerous organizations including AT&T, IBM and the American Business Collaborative for Quality Dependent Care, Johnson & Johnson, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He teaches strategic management and public policy within the MIT School of Engineering's Engineering Systems Division.

Host(s): School of Engineering, Transportation@MIT

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