Your Future Robot Companion

Loneliness is a problem for many elderly people. Older people who are trying to cope with the loss of a spouse or long-time companion often struggle with health problems that are related to their solitude: the National Institutes of Health reports that studies have shown that isolation among senior citizens, and the resulting lack of regular social interaction, can lead to depression. cognitive decline, and heart disease.

The Washington Post reports that an Israeli company, Intuition Robotics, has now released a product that seeks to address that problem. ElliQ is an artificial intelligence device that looks vaguely like a lava lamp on a stand. It is designed to serve as a companion, rather than an assistant like Siri or Alexa. As the Post describes it, “ElliQ offers soothing encouragement, invitations to games, gentle health prodding, music thoughts and, most important, a friendly voice that learns a person’s ways and comforts them in their solitude.” The article includes this quote from a company representative:

“This is a character-based person, an entity that lives with you,” said Dor Skuler, Intuition’s chief executive and co-founder. “People who use ElliQ expect her to remember conversations, they expect her to hold context … to deal with the hard times and celebrate the great times. These are the things I think we’re on the frontier of.”

is humanity on the verge of a future where lonely humans find comfort in interaction with machines? Some would argue that that future is already here, with computers serving as the anti-isolation device, and that our increasing acclimation to smartphones, other smart devices, computers, and other electronica has created fertile ground for acceptance of robot companions. It’s an interesting question. Many elderly people who aren’t house-bound could increase their interaction with other humans by joining clubs, or churches, or support groups. If they don’t do that, will they respond to a robot? Or is a device like ElliQ a little easier, and less threatening, than putting yourself out there in a conscious effort to make friends? Could ElliQ and similar devices have the effect of promoting less human contact?

We’ll have to see about that, but I will say that the Post article’s description of ElliQ’s conversational gambits makes the device seem like a bit of a nag. If I’ve got to have a robot companion one of these days, I’d rather have one like Bender from Futurama. I suspect that Bender’s raucous approach to life would be a lot more likely to get me out and about.

A Toe-Curling Phishing Attempt

The other day I got a phishing email at work. No surprise there, everyone gets phishing email as a matter of course. But this email was especially insulting because it was clearly age-related, and suggested that the sender was specifically trying to target those of us who have been around the block a few times.

The phishing email purportedly advertised a “New Toenail Clipper.” That’s an immediate ageist tell: the youngsters out there, still possessed of the flexibility that accompanies the dew of youth, probably can trim their toenails with their teeth. A toenail clipper solicitation can only be aimed at the geriatric brigade.

And the email went on to make the intended target audience even more obvious, using phrases like “Do you have pain when trying to clip your nails because of arthritis or other problems?” and noting, in bold face type, that the advertised clipper would make trimming toenails “easy for everyone.” The clipper had an “ergonomic design,” the email said, that would make it “EASY and SIMPLE to clip toenails without painful pressure.” And the clipper even had a built-in light to help those with dim, failing eyesight make sure that they were cropping off a nail and not lopping off a toe itself. And to top it all off, the email offered the opportunity to get this miracle of modern toenail engineering for 57% off.

Why do I know this was a phishing attempt? Because I’ve never done any shopping that would elicit a toenail trimmer solicitation, no brand was mentioned, the email came from an email address that included the word “phamgiang,” and the big inducement was to get me to click on an unknown link. Other than those obvious clues, it was a pretty sophisticated phishing attempt, complete with color photos and without the misspellings you typically see in phishing efforts. The sender didn’t know, however, that this particular recipient would be offended, rather than enticed, by a blatant age-targeted email.

Still, it’s a good lesson: when it comes to phishing, you need to be on your toes.

Cane Fighting

For some reason–probably having to do with my birth date–I received a notice on Google, or Facebook, or some other on-line source about this book on Amazon: Cane Fighting: The Authoritative Guide to Using a Cane or Walking Stick for Self-Defense. I imagine that there is no surer sign of advancing age than being prompted to buy a book that schools you on how to ward off attackers with the cane that you are assumed to be using.

In Victorian times, using a cane for self-defense wasn’t limited to the elderly. Many British gents carried walking sticks as part of their regular high-class ensemble, and if you’ve read the Sherlock Holmes stories you’ll recall Holmes and Watson intentionally taking their “sticks” along on their adventures, so they could lay into any ruffians that might accost them as they rambled along on London’s foggy streets in search of clues. Alas, social affectations have changed, and healthy adults now typically don’t walk around with canes or walking sticks, ready to start thrashing away at any attackers.

Instead, these days canes and walking sticks seem to be limited to two categories of people: hikers who are out on a hike, and the elderly and infirm. You wouldn’t think that hikers in the wilderness would need to use Cane Fighting techniques against others they might encounter on the trails, although these days, I guess, you never know. Instead, the notion of using canes for self-defense seems to be reserved for people who actually need canes to help them stay upright as they are out and about. And the book I got the prompt about isn’t alone in this area–there is lots of information on the web about cane fighting. As the step-by-step illustration above about the “defensive two-handed jab” to an assailant’s chest indicates, there is even a “Cane Masters International Association” that has identified and catalogued specific cane fighting moves.

The problem with the idea of cane fighting is that it basically presupposes two things: the person using the cane probably didn’t need it in the first place, and therefore isn’t going to topple over while they employ the “defensive two-handed jab” or another quick-moving maneuver, and the assailant will be standing still while the tottering grandpa makes his big move. I’m not sure how valid those assumptions actually are. And why worry about a specific move if you can just start whaling away at any attacker and clouting them about the head and shoulders until they go away or are disabled by laughter at your feeble efforts?

We’ve actually got a cane or two that we’ve inherited, and keep them in an umbrella stand in our front hallway. Maybe it’s time to get them out, buy this book, and work on a little cane fu, just in case.

Some Suggested Topics For Dr. Rick

Kish and I always get a chuckle out of the Progressive Insurance commercials featuring Dr. Rick, the “Parenta-Life Coach” who tries to help young homeowners avoid turning into their parents. Part of what makes the commercials so funny is that they are spot on — especially the point about making noise when you sit down or rise from your seat — and “We all see it” has become a catch phrase in our household.

Some new Dr. Rick commercials have come out recently, which makes us hope that this will be a continuing series. To encourage some more Dr. Rick spots, here are some suggestions on other telltale signs that he might point out to his prematurely aged pupils:

  • Telling long, meandering stories about people the listeners don’t know (with Dr. Rick interrupting and responding, in exasperation: “Remember, none of us know or care about that person.”)
  • Calling the sofa a “davenport”
  • When served with a meal at a restaurant, identifying which of the foods on the plate you won’t eat because they give you “gas” (causing Dr. Rick to groan and shake his head in dismay)
  • Having a refrigerator that is totally covered with magnets
  • Asking how they are supposed to know whether their TV is “streaming” or not
  • Referring to music they like as “records”

The possibilities are pretty much endless.

Another Crease In The Head

The other day I was brushing my teeth when I noticed that yet another wrinkle had appeared on my forehead. Because there’s not much else to be done about it, I decided that writing bad verse was the only reasonable response to this monstrous act of facial cellular betrayal:

Another Crease In The Head

Alas! Will wonders never cease?

Today I found another crease.

A crease! A seam! A furrow deep!

Arrived while I was well asleep.

Behold!  A visage, once unmarred,

Is by another wrinkle scarred.

And a forehead that ere was proud,

Appears to have been freshly plowed.

What caused my skins cells to decide

To carve a groove into my hide?

Are age and toil just brought to bear,

Or is this the price for poor skin care?

So welcome, crease! Join the collection!

And taunt me in the mirror’s reflection.

And yet, I’m grateful to my skin

For not adding another chin.

Unwelcome Intros

The other day I got an email from an evidently well-meaning local health operations.  The text of the email began:  “At your age . . . .”  The rest of the sentence was “watch out for these injuries,” but I really couldn’t get past the introductory phrase.  Couldn’t they have come up with something a little bit less aggressively in-your-face about the age issue, and a little more neutral in tone?

storage-rack-for-folding-walkers(In case you’re wondering, the email pointed out that aging people tend to lose strength and flexibility, and have problems with their balance.  In short, when you get old you’re going to become a rigid, brittle-boned, stumbling weakling.  Welcome to the Golden Years!  And watch out for those falls that cause hip injuries.)

Messages that begin “At your age” are right up there with messages that begin “We regret to inform you.”  When you see that, you know bad news is coming.  Sometimes you don’t even need to read the introductory phrase to know that the tidings are grim.  When I was applying to law schools back in the early ’80s, I quickly learned that a slender envelope inevitably equaled rejection.  Applicants were looking for the fat manila envelopes that provided information about acceptance, financial aid availability, and other information that an accepted student might need, not the basic envelope white envelope carrying the one-page ding letter from some flunky in the registrar’s office.  (Of course, that was back in the days when people used the mails to communicate, which just shows why I’m getting emails that begin “At your age . . . .”)

And speaking of messages, sometimes what starts out positive can take an abrupt left turn with the use of the word “but.”  A wise older person once said that you should ignore everything that comes before the “but.”   Being old, after voicing those words of wisdom she no doubt promptly stood up, lost her balance, and suffered some kind of joint injury.

Out Of Whack

I’ve been on the road a lot recently, and I feel like it’s had an impact on my normal routines.  I’ve moved back and forth between time zones, spent a lot of time on planes, gotten up at odd hours (even for me) and stayed up later than normal, and am no longer on the schedule that I’ve typically followed.

a41_lot271_2-maxAnd I’m feeling all of that, too.  My circadian rhythms are out of whack and off kilter.  I feel like an old golf ball that has lost its crisp bounce and now is just landing on the fairway or in the rough with a pathetic, disappointing thud.

The hoary saying is that you are only as old as you feel.  Of course, that saying suggests that there are times when you do feel older, and are reminded by mind and body that you’re not the spring chicken you used to be.  The realization that your rebound process seems to be taking a lot longer now than it did in the past is one of those times.  But right now I’m just too tired to care.

Never Quite “Old”

Recently the New York Times ran a piece which once again addresses the question of what constitutes being “old” in America.  The writer, who is 61, says that the question of “what is ‘old,’ anyway?” is very much on his mind and is on the minds of the 70 million Baby Boomers who are older than 50.  He adds, by way of illustration:  “Dinner conversations are now hyper-focused on how to stay young or at least delay old.”

active-seniors-bicyclingThose sound like pretty damned boring dinner conversations!

It seems like we see these articles with regularity, as we Baby Boomers fight desperately to avoid association with “old age.”  The article linked above, for example, quotes a researcher who says that somebody who is 60 years old today is “middle-aged” and true “old age” doesn’t occur until men hit 70 to 71 and women hit 73 or 74.  Wanna bet that those numbers move back even farther as the bulge of the Boomer generation moves closer to the dreaded “old age” cutoff, to the point where, in a few years, people are saying 80 is the new 50?

It’s pretty ridiculous — and kind of pathetic — when you think about it.  Some people in the Baby Boom generation have always seemed more focused on how they are perceived than how they feel about themselves.  Now that they are aging, and they don’t want to be seen as “old,” they struggle to convince everyone that a different definition should apply. But the efforts aren’t working, and people still use the same criteria to define who is “old” — things like whether you’ve got gray hair, or for that matter any hair, and whether you’re approaching retirement at your workplace.  If you have enough of those criteria, you’re going to be seen as “old,” whether or not some researcher argues that advances in longevity really should change the definition.

If all Baby Boomers were really as rebellious as they like to think they are, they wouldn’t care about public perception.  If you’re seen as old by others, so what?  The key is what people think about themselves, not the labels assigned to them by others.  Baby Boomers would be better off if they stopped talking about “being old” at dinner conversations, and started focusing more on what they personally still want to do with their lives.

My Doctor’s Questionnaire

My doctor is one of those incredibly capable health care professionals who is always acquiring information in order to provide the best possible medical advice.  He uses the information obtained from a questionnaire as deftly as surgeons use a scalpel or GPs use a rubber tomahawk on your knee to test reflexes.

Recently, though, I’ve noticed a change in the tenor of the questionnaires I’m getting from my doctor.  No longer are they just focused on allergies, or muscle strains, or my diet, or how much exercise I’m getting.  Now the questions seem a lot more, uh, pointed.  In my most recent visit, the very first page of the questionnaire I was given to complete was the “Duke Activity Status Index.”

img_5859“Can you take care of yourself (eating, dressing, bathing or using the toilet)?”

“Can you walk indoors such as around your house?”

“Can you walk a block or two on level ground?”

Can you climb a flight of stairs or walk up a hill?”

Hey, wait a second!  Exactly what kind of questionnaire is this, anyway?  Why are the busybody nerds at Duke wondering about whether I can walk a single block on level ground, or eat without assistance?

I’m guessing the “Duke Activity Status Index” is not given to 25-year-old patients.

And then the very next page in the questionnaire packet is the “Burns Depression Checklist,” and one of its questions is:  “Poor self-image:  Do you think you’re looking old or unattractive?”

Well, to be honest with you, I really wasn’t focused on the subject until I started to read this questionnaire!

Destination: Jimmy Durante

Yesterday I ran across a discouraging article.  It pointed out that whereas most parts of the human body have stopped growing when an individual reaches adulthood, there are two uniform exceptions to that rule: your ears and your nose.

589dbf1913f52__george-burns-and-jimmy-durante(FYI, apparently fat cells around the midsection are not considered a separate “body part.”)

The article explains that in most parts of the human body, growth stops because cells stop dividing — although the cells themselves can expand or shrink.  The ears and nose are different from other body parts because they are soft tissue encased in cartilage, and the soft tissue cells keep growing, and growing, and growing — forever.  And when I call up the mental images of the two of my grandparents who lived well into their 90s, I realize with a start that they did end up with pretty big schnozzollas, now that I really think about it.

This is discouraging news, because I don’t know of anyone who desperately desires to have a bigger nose or more prominent ears.  The nose is already one of the dominant features of the face.  It’s not exactly an attractive, expressive feature, either.  If a facial feature has to continue to grow, why couldn’t it be the eyes?

And, if like me, you already have a considerable, if noble, nose, and ears that look like the twin handles of a Roman vase, you wonder just how big the darned things might get.  I’m afraid I’m ultimately headed to Jimmy Durante territory.

What The Pop-Up Ads Are Telling Me

I have an app on my phone that allows me to play “Spider Solitaire,” which helps me kill time on the road.  Because I’m a cheapskate, I downloaded the free version of the app, which means I have to endure, and promptly delete, an advertisement before I can play a new game.

hqdefaultIn the past, the ads were almost exclusively for other time-wasting game apps, which almost always featured smiling and frolicking animated creatures, or happy magic elves, or popping cubes, or a classy English butler who was part of a secret society trying to find hidden objects on the screen.  Lately, though, the ads seem to be sending a darker, more targeted message:  Hey user!  We’ve somehow figured out that you’re old, and since you’ve never responded positively to an ad with adorable, starry-eyed tap-dancing pandas, we’re going to bombard you with obvious age-related products instead!

I first noticed this theme when I started to see ads for pharmaceutical products, like an ad for a drug that is supposed to deal with type 2 diabetes.  Geez, I thought:  That’s a pretty serious topic for a pop-up ad on a free game app.  But then the next ad was for $350,000 in life insurance, with no age or health limits, that would allow your family to bury you and give you peace of mind that they would be provided for after you went into the Great Beyond.  And since then I’ve seen ads for new mattresses so I can get a better night’s sleep, ads for prostate and urinary tract medications, and ads for retirement communities featuring smiling seniors out on the golf course.  What’s next? Ads for Sansabelt slacks, Geritol, and early bird specials at the MCL Cafeteria?

It’s getting so that playing a few games of Spider Solitaire has become kind of a downer.  Hey, can we go back to those ultra-cute tap-dancing pandas?

 

Sleepless, But On Guard

Everyone knows that, as you get older, your sleep patterns change and, for the most part, get worse.  A lot worse.

The arc of sleep goes from the totally out like a light sleep of the very young to the 12-hour power-sleeping capabilities of college students, but it’s all downhill from there.  By the time you’re in your 40s, 50s, and 60s, the realities of shrinking bladder capacity and ever-present concerns about developments in your career and family life combine to make sleep a fitful exercise, with lots of tossing and turning mixed in.  There’s not much REM sleep to be had.

neanderthalerScientists think there is an evolutionary reason for this unfortunate trend — one that goes back to caveman days.  They say older folks sleep less soundly because their role in the tribe was to be alert for potential predators, attacks from warring clans, and other lurking disasters.  In caveman days, the blue-haired set would go to bed earlier than the rest of the tribe.  Then, with their lighter sleep habits, they would be roused by the sounds that a nocturnal animal would make upon entering the cave and could give the alert, so that the more youthful members of the tribe could help to fight the predator.  And the sleepless oldsters would also be first up in the morning, to get that all-important fire going and be ready to deal with any unwanted intrusions by bears or wolves or sabertoothed tigers.

It’s nice to know that there’s an exciting explanation for experiencing poorer, less satisfying sleep as you get older, and that in the dawn of humanity a codger my age would be quickly roused to alertness in order to grapple with cave bears and save the tribe.  I’d still trade it for a solid seven hours of sound sleep.

Rethinking Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease has been a known condition since it was discovered, in 1906, by a German doctor, and it has been the focus of lots of attention and research for decades.  It ranks as one of the top causes of death in the United States and is the third leading cause of death among people 60 and older, just behind heart disease and cancer.

So, after more than a hundred years, why haven’t we figured out how to treat this dread and deadly disease that robs people of their minds and personalities and leaves them empty shelves of their former selves?  Why, for example, have doctors and drug companies been able to develop effective treatments for HIV and AIDS, but not Alzheimer’s?

alzheimer_brainIt’s not that the scientific and medical community isn’t trying — but identifying the real cause of Alzheimer’s, and then devising a meaningful treatment, is proving to be an incredibly elusive challenge.  A brain with Alzheimer’s is like a car crash with no witnesses, where the accident reconstruction expert tries to find clues from the physical evidence.  Do those skid marks indicate that the driver was going too fast, or do they suggest that the driver was distracted, or was the driver paying attention when something like a deer unexpectedly came onto the road?  In the case of Alzheimer’s the brain is mangled and distorted and physically changed, both chemically and structurally.  Are those changes what caused the disease, or are they mere byproducts of the active agent that does the real harm?

For more than a quarter century, Alzheimer’s researchers and drug companies have been focusing on the “amyloid hypothesis,” which posits that an increase in amyloid deposits causes the disease, and have worked to develop drugs to target amyloid.  The hypothesis was devised because Alzheimer’s patients have an unusual buildup of amyloid in their brains, amyloid buildups have been found to be harmful in other bodily organs, and people with a genetic history of Alzheimer’s in their families also have been found to have mutations in the genes responsible for amyloid production.  With this kind of evidence, it’s not surprising that amyloid production has been the focus of treatment efforts.

Unfortunately, though, the trials of drugs that address amyloid production haven’t been successful — and after repeated failures, some scientists are wondering whether the amyloid hypothesis should be scrapped, and the disease should be examined afresh.  The amyloid hypothesis remains the prevailing view, but a minority of researchers think that the focus on amyloid buildup is like trying to close the barn door after the livestock have already escaped.  And they wonder whether the amyloid hypothesis has become entrenched with so many people, who invested so much time and money in developing amyloid-based treatments, that work on alternative approaches is being undercut.

It’s a classic test for the scientific method.  Over the years, there are countless examples of instances where prevailing views on medical, or physical, problems were overturned in favor of new approaches that turned out to accurately identify cause and effect.  The scientific method is supposed to objectively find the right answers.  For Alzheimer’s disease, maybe it is just a matter of tweaking how to develop the right treatment for the amyloid build-up — or maybe it’s something else entirely.

Those of us who have dealt with Alzheimer’s in our families hope the scientific and medical community put aside preconceived notions, dispassionately assess the evidence, and explore every avenue for developing a successful treatment.  This disease is just too devastating to go unaddressed.

Changing Over Time

Here’s some welcome, but not especially surprising, news:  scientists have concluded that our personalities change over time.

seniors_teensThe University of Edinburgh did an interesting study that confirms what should be obvious — people in their teenage years are a lot different from those same people as geriatrics.  The study looked at data compiled about the personality and character traits of people who were evaluated in 1947, at age 14, as part of the Scottish Mental Survey, and then tried to track down those same people down years later, when they hit age 77, to evaluate them again.  The study looked a personal qualities like self-confidence, perseverance, stability of moods, conscientiousness, originality, and desire to excel, and found very little correlation between the 14-year-olds and the 77-year-olds on the conscientiousness and stability of moods qualities, and no correlation on the others.

Any study of personality and character traits is not going to be as precise as, say, measuring the flow or neutrinos, because of observer bias.  The University of Edinburgh results, for example, rely on teacher assessments of the 14-year-olds — it’s not hard to imagine that your gym teacher might have a different take on self-confidence than your English teacher, for example —  and the 77-year-olds rated themselves and identified a close friend or family member to complete the survey.  I imagine, however, that by age 77 most people are going to drop the posturing and evaluate themselves pretty honestly.

So life, and time, change you.  No surprise there!  It would be weird indeed if a lifetime of experiences, good and bad, didn’t actually alter the way you reacted to other people and the world at large.  I carry around memories from my 14-year-old self, but other than that I don’t really feel a great connection to that awkward, tubby, dreamy, self-absorbed person on the verge of high school — which is kind of a relief, really.  I imagine that if most of us met our 14-year-old selves, we’d find it fascinating, but then conclude that we really weren’t all that likable back then, and give our parents, siblings, and friends a lot more credit for putting up with us.

The key, of course, is to change for the better.  It’s a worthy goal.