Sunday, February 18, 2001

New Wireless technology could ease caregivers' fears

        My Uncle Bob died three years ago due to complications of Alzheimer's disease. He is preserved in memory in a black-and-white photo in my upstairs hall, a jovial young man helping a 4-year-old me with her Christmas doll.

        Bits and pieces of his life are preserved temporarily in my own memory as half of the childless aunt-uncle team who laughed like Santa Claus, brought nice presents and couldn't quite wrap his mind around the fact that I had grown up and begun a family of my own.

A world of his own

        There is also an image of him there the last time I saw him: a confused, dear old man who was lost in his own world when I visited and who knew every little while in pseudo lucidity that I and two “nice little girls” — my daughters — were in the room.

        As is characteristic of the disease, Uncle Bob was prone to wandering — both physically and mentally — in lands known only to him. He depended on my 70-year-old aunt for personal daily care, without knowing that she was tending his needs. He grew to be a war hero, a hard worker, a family and civic model and ended as a man who rarely recognized siblings or familiar touchstones of his own life.

        As our population ages and technology advances, young and old Americans with cognitive disabilities are growing in numbers, too. Babies with Down syndrome who once lived abbreviated lives in isolation are now growing and thriving as adults. Children with autism who would once have been institutionalized are now receiving medical and therapeutic treatment to cope in our sometimes chaotic environments. Adults experiencing strokes are rehabilitated to remarkable recovery levels.

        Still, the concerns of those who love and care for children and adults with cognitive disabilities are a stretch in comprehension even for those of us who have experienced the responsibilities of parenthood. Will my 20-, 30-, 50-year-old child, brother or wife, they wonder, remember to eat, to get out of bed, go to work on time or take his/her medicine?

A generous gift

        In a philanthropic gift unprecedented in size and perhaps foresight, California software company founder, Bill Coleman and his wife, Claudia, recently gave $250 million to the University of Colorado for developing wireless devices to assist people with cognitive disabilities in managing their lives. Consisting primarily of BEA Systems stock, the quarter-billion dollar donation will be given over a period of five years.

        Imagine a hand-held device that would tell an adult with mental retardation that she had missed her bus and when the next one will be coming along.

        Imagine an electronic gadget that would alert caregivers that an elderly person who has experienced a stroke is no longer watching his favorite television program or petting the dog. Imagine a wireless beeper that would signal relatives that a young man with schizophrenia is not taking his medication or eating his dinner.

        These are not wild science fiction fantasies but possible projects as results of the research the Colemans' gift has made possible. While part of the gift will also be earmarked for medical and genetic research, renovating labs and funding positions, the bulk of it will be placed in an endowment to develop assistive technology.

        Technology has many times made the impossible possible in recent years, particularly for people with physical and sensory disabilities. Now, kids and adults with cognitive disabilities, along with the people who love them, are on the threshold of realizing miraculous breakthroughs, too. It comes as no surprise that the Colemans were inspired, in part, by a niece with cognitive disabilities.

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