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High-tech home offers help to elderly, disabled

| Monday, April 28, 2008

It looks like nothing more than a tidy starter home.

But the house on a corner lot in one of McKeesport's most depressed neighborhoods might hold the key to the city's long-awaited rebirth.

Built by local nonprofit Blueroof Technologies, the model home is the first glimpse of a planned zone of high-tech cottages that would enable elderly or disabled people to stay in their own places instead of nursing homes.

Blueroof's "McKeesport Independence Zone" project has the support of city officials and three universities. And it passed what might be a bigger test: persuading someone to abandon suburbia for one of the Mon Valley's most blighted communities.

"We love technology. We're kind of technogeeks, so it seems like a perfect fit," said Debra "D.J." Stemmler.

Stemmler, 47, of Hampton, who has used a wheelchair since a car crash caused degenerative spinal problems, will move in June to another high-tech home in the McKeesport zone.

Stemmler said she had reservations about moving with her teenage son, who has cerebral palsy, and elderly mother to a neighborhood long marred by crime and derelict buildings.

On the other hand, soon she and Sergei, 18, will have sidewalks on which to drive their wheelchairs, and easy access to bus service. Their new place will have monitoring systems that announce when a door is open and the stove or water is on, a boon for her mother, Ruth, 73, who has Alzheimer's disease.

More technology is on the way, such as computerized therapy to help her mother's memory and robot arms to help around the house. All will operate under the watchful eyes of researchers.

"My life is an open book anyway, so I don't really have any privacy issues," Stemmler said. "What they'll find out is we're just like anybody else."

The family will move after Sergei graduates and become what Stemmler calls the zone's first "guinea pigs."

Five years from now, according to Blueroof Executive Director John Bertoty, the neighborhood will have 15 to 20 one-story cottages outfitted like the Stemmlers'. The city demolished vacant buildings in the 10-acre zone and is installing sidewalks and repaving streets. Blueroof began building another cottage this month.

Researchers at the Quality of Life Technology Center, run by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, want to use the zone to test devices designed to support independent living. Students from Penn State will live and work with residents, earning credit toward degrees in civic engagement, Bertoty said. A small dormitory will house up to 10 students.

Plans call for a technology center for monitoring, testing and other research. And most importantly for a city that collapsed with the shutdown of its tube mill, they include a factory. If the McKeesport Independence Zone succeeds, Bertoty figures, Blueroof will need to build a lot more houses.

"We don't look at this like a depressed area with vacant lots. ... We look at it as an opportunity to do real research," Bertoty said.

Bertoty, 62, a retired principal at McKeesport Area High School, and Bob Walters, 60, an engineering professor at the city's Penn State Greater Allegheny campus, devised the idea for McKeesport-based Blueroof and the independence zone.

The city's low property values and large population of elderly residents made it an ideal place to design and test small, tech-equipped houses that could be an alternative to nursing homes. Gerald Gesmond, 60, a local builder, joined the team as head of its for-profit subsidiary, Blueroof Solutions.

In addition to building a model home in McKeesport, Blueroof has built a modular unit that, attached to an existing house, is designed to enable more independent living for a disabled veteran.

Walters has outfitted two group homes for mentally ill adults elsewhere in Allegheny County with camera systems so caregivers can leave residents alone but watch them from a basement control room. Cameras could let elderly residents hook up to an electrocardiogram and exercise at home under a therapist's supervision.

Jim "Oz" Osborn, executive director of the Quality of Life Technology Center, said the partnership with Blueroof helped persuade the National Science Foundation to put the country's top research lab for assistive technologies -- with its $3.5 million in annual federal funding -- in Pittsburgh.

"We're not going to just do this in our laboratories. We're going to put this in real situations," Osborn said.

In one lab affiliated with the center, researchers with CMU and Intel are trying to teach a robot arm to clear a table and load a dishwasher without human guidance.

The large, three-fingered arm is somewhat slow and clumsy. But programmers are learning with each dropped mug how to make a more versatile device, Osborn said. Within a few years, they hope it will be able to open a door or cook a pot of spaghetti when asked.

Other researchers are working on wearable cameras that recognize where they are and what is happening around them, so they can help the wearer if he or she gets confused.

Still others are designing a system that will assemble a brief recap of the day's events from a wearable camera. That kind of therapy can help Alzheimer's patients retain memories.

Corporations want to get in on the experiment. Bosch is helping pay for a house in the neighborhood in exchange for testing its products for the elderly there. John Deere wants to try out robot lawnmowers.

With the baby boom generation nearing retirement, McKeesport is hitching itself to a growth market, Mayor James Brewster said.

"This will be the template that will be used throughout the country. I think you will see neighborhoods like this go up in every city in America," Brewster said.

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