Research is growing with high-tech gadgets that promise new safety nets for seniors determined to live on their own for as long as possible.
"It's insurance in case something should happen," is how Bob Harrison, 85, describes the unobtrusive monitors being tested in his apartment at the TigerPlace retirement community in Columbia, Mo.
Living at home - specialists call it aging in place - is what most people want for their later years. Americans 40 and older are just as worried about losing their independence as they are about losing their memory, according to a recent survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Common-sense interventions like grab bars in bathrooms and taping down rugs to prevent tripping can make homes safer as seniors deal with chronic illnesses. Technology is the next frontier, and a far cry from those emergency-call buttons seniors sometimes wear to summon help.
Already, some companies are offering monitoring packages that place motion sensors on the front door, a favorite chair, even the refrigerator, and then send an alert to a family member if there's too little activity over a certain period of time. Other gadgets can make pill bottles buzz when it's time for a dose and text a caregiver if it's not taken, or promise to switch off a stove burner that's left on too long.
Researchers at the University of Missouri aim to go further: Their experiments show that certain automatic monitoring can spot changes - such as restlessness in bed or a drop in daytime activity - that occur 10 days to two weeks before a fall or a trip to the doctor or hospital.
"We were blown away that we could actually detect this," said nursing professor Marilyn Rantz, an aging-in-place specialist who is leading the research. She compares it to "a vital sign of my physical function."
Why would the gadgets work? That monitor under the mattress can measure pulse and respiratory patterns to see if heart failure is worsening before someone realizes he or she is becoming short of breath. More nighttime bathroom trips can indicate a brewing urinary tract infection.
A change in gait, such as starting to take shorter or slower steps, can signal increased risk for a fall. Basic motion sensors can't detect that. So Rantz's team adapted the Microsoft Kinect 3-D camera, developed for video games, to measure subtle changes in walking. (Yes, it can distinguish visitors.)
The researchers installed the sensor package in apartments at the university-affiliated TigerPlace community and in a Cedar Falls, Iowa, senior complex. On-site nurses received automatic emails about significant changes in residents' activity. One study found that after a year, residents who agreed to be monitored were functioning better than an unmonitored control group, presumably because nurses intervened sooner at signs of trouble, Rantz said.
The bigger question is whether simply alerting a loved one, not a nurse, might also help. Now, with a new grant from the National Institutes of Health, Rantz will begin expanding the research to see how this monitoring works in different senior housing - and this time, participants can decide if they'd like a family member or friend to get those alerts, in addition to a nurse.
Rantz says embedding sensors in the home is important because too many older adults forget or don't want to wear those older emergency-call buttons - including Rantz's own mother, who lay helpless on her floor for eight hours after tripping and badly breaking a shoulder. Rantz said her mother never fully recovered, and six months later died.
"When we started this team, I said we are not going to make anybody wear anything or push any buttons, because my mother refused and I don't think she's any different than a lot of other people in this world," Rantz said.
Monitoring raises important privacy questions, about just what is tracked and who has access to it, cautioned Jeff Makowka of AARP.
To work, the high-tech approach has to be "less about, `We're watching you, Grandma,' but `Hey, Grandma, how come you didn't make coffee this morning?'" he said.
Sensor prices are another hurdle, although Makowka said they're dropping. Various kinds already on the market can run from about $70 to several hundred, plus monthly service plans.
Chris Chelios played in the NHL for as long as he could.
And he did it at a high level.
"I always said I'd go right until the tank was empty," he said. "And, I believe I did."
Chelios and fellow defensemen Scott Niedermayer along with forward Brendan Shanahan found out Tuesday they will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November.
Only Hall of Famer Gordie Howe was an older NHL player than Chelios, the only player in league history to play in at least 400 games with three different teams. His career ended with the Atlanta Thrashers during the 2009-10 season when he was 48.
"I was part of an era, Chris was part of a few," Niedermayer joked.
Chelios, Niedermayer and Shanahan will be joined in the 2013 class by Geraldine Heaney, the third woman to be enshrined in the hall, and coach Fred Shero, who led the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup in 1974 and '75. He was selected posthumously in the builder category.
"There's no sense looking back as to why it didn't happen sooner, because today's a happy day to celebrate the fact that a guy that deserves it immensely has finally been elected to the Hall of Fame," Flyers chairman Ed Snider said.
Chelios and Niedermayer earned hockey's biggest individual honor in their first year of eligibility, and Shanahan got in on his second shot.
New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello raved about all three players, each of whom he had a connection to during their careers.
"Scott was an integral part of our success in New Jersey, not just on the ice, but off the ice," Lamoriello said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
"Shanahan was a part of my first draft - back in 1987 - and he went on to establish himself as one of the best, all-time power forwards in the history of the game. Chelios, who I was with in the 1996 World Cup and the Olympics, is one of the best success stories for an American hockey player."
Shanahan was a teammate of Chelios' in Detroit, and played with Niedermayer during the Olympics in 2002 when Canada won gold by beating Chelios and the Americans in Salt Lake City.
"When you got to play with them, it was a thrill," Shanahan said. "I spent some years playing with Cheli, and there's not another guy that you would want to go into a tough situation looking out for you.
"It absolutely makes it more special to go in with people I not only played against, but played with and got to know well."
Shanahan and Niedermayer are members of what's known as the Triple Gold Club, a group of players who have won the worlds, the Olympics and a Stanley Cup.
Each player is still working in the sport. Chelios is an adviser to hockey operations in Detroit. Niedermayer is an assistant coach in Anaheim. Shanahan is the NHL senior vice president of player safety.
Niedermayer won four Stanley Cups in 17 full NHL seasons to go along with a Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy. He played for the New Jersey Devils from 1991-92 through the 2003-04 season and finished his career in Anaheim in 2010.
Among the game's best U.S.-born players, Chelios won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman three times.
The Chicagoan split much of his career with three storied franchises in Montreal, Chicago and Detroit and was asked which team he will be affiliated when he is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"U.S.A.," he said.
Shanahan finished his career with 656 goals and 698 assists. He won three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings, an Olympic gold medal and was the quintessential scoring power winger of his era.
Shanahan started his career with the Devils, went on to play in St. Louis, Hartford, Detroit and for the New York Rangers before ending his playing career back in New Jersey.
Heaney was a defenseman on Canada's gold-medal-winning team at the 2002 Olympics and is considered one of the best female players in history.
"As a young girl playing hockey, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be going into the hall," she said.
A news release from the singer's publicist says the 54-year-old Travis was admitted to the hospital Sunday in Dallas and was in critical condition Monday evening.
Travis was being treated for viral cardiomyopathy (kahr-dee-oh-my-OP-uh-thee), a heart condition caused by a virus, according to his publicist, Kirt Webster.
The Mayo Clinic's website says the disease weakens and enlarges the heart muscle, making it harder for the heart to pump blood and carry it to the rest of the body. It can lead to heart failure. Treatments range from medications and surgically implanted devices to heart transplants.
The illness is a continuation of a tough run for Travis after a handful of recent high-profile appearances, including a performance during the Country Music Association Festival's nightly concert series and George Jones' funeral.
Long a popular figure in country music, the North Carolina-born singer has been trying to put his life back together after a series of embarrassing public incidents involving alcohol.
Travis pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in January following his arrest last year when he was found naked after crashing his Pontiac Trans Am.
Travis was sentenced to two years of probation, fined $2,000 and given a 180-day suspended jail sentence. He was required to spend at least 30 days at an alcohol treatment facility and complete 100 hours of community service.
The multiple Grammy Award-winning singer rode his alternately mellow and majestic voice to stardom in the 1980s and `90s with hits like "Forever and Ever, Amen" and "Three Wooden Crosses."