“Smart” devices and apps may facilitate a new “virtual assisted living,” helping families care for older adults, Joseph Coughlin, Ph.D., director of the MIT AgeLab in Cambridge, MA, said in remarks prepared for members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging on Wednesday.

Coughlin testified at a committee hearing about how technology can help maintain health and quality of life for older adults, and he mentioned several technologies in his remarks, including the use of virtual reality in assisted living communities and nursing homes.

“Findings from an MIT AgeLab project with Rendever and Benchmark Senior Living found that older adults playing with VR not only had fun, but reported less depression and engaged in more active conversations with other residents,” he noted.

Several technologies were on display or referenced at the hearing, including a pen that helps people with low vision identify items, smartphone apps that have health functions, and “smart glasses” designed to help prevent falls for people with poor eyesight.

“Another area where technology holds great potential is in reducing social isolation,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), chair of the committee. “Social media and video chat on tablets and smartphones help to reduce social isolation and enrich seniors’ lives by keeping them connected to their loved ones. Social isolation and loneliness can have serious, even deadly, consequences for the health and well-being of our nation’s seniors.”

Upcoming legislation

Also at the hearing, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), the committee’s ranking member, said that he and Collins will it be introducing the 21st Century Assistive Technology Act after Congress’ recess.

“This legislation will update the Assistive Technology Act to provide more resources to state assistive technology programs that would expand access for older adults and individuals with disabilities,” he said.

Casey said he also plans to introduce the Access to Freedom of Speech for All Act, meant to increase access to information about alternative communication devices for those who have speech and written language disabilities.

“These bills are designed to ensure assistive technology and alternative communication devices are available to those who need it so they can be full participants in every aspect of their lives,” he said.