Tech and Time

Tech and Time

The power of technology is staggering. But it is often seen as dehumanizing—leading to a lack of authentic, face-to-face connections. It does not have to be that way. 

One local retirement community has struck the balance between using technology and leveraging time together. At Knollwood, a military life plan community and not for profit, in Northwest Washington, D.C., residents benefit from the use of cutting-edge technology for both advanced physical therapy and social engagement. They also enjoy the company of like-minded peers and assistance from a dedicated, professional staff. With tech and time, Knollwood residents are remaining engaged and living well.

A Life of Service

The military has always been a part of Thelma Mrazek’s life. Her father was an Army officer during WWI. Her husband, Col. James Mrazek, was a West Point graduate who served as an officer during WWII and helped found the Airborne Operations. A glider infantryman, Col. Mrazek went on to write books about the unique work of his unit. 

“He felt that the glider infantry was largely unknown and got little recognition compared to the paratroopers of WWII,” Thelma recalled. “We traveled throughout Europe and interviewed people about the different battles, and he wrote about it all. That was a very interesting time.”

A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Thelma moved to New York City after graduating from college. She later relocated to D.C. when she was offered a job as an editor. “I met my husband after I moved here, and I followed him throughout the world,” she said. 

While they were traveling the globe, Thelma continued to work as a writer and editor. The couple eventually settled in Bethesda. 

The Mrazeks first learned about Knollwood when they helped his mother relocate to the community. The couple often visited her, and she was always happy and engaged. 

Years later, when some of Col. Mrazek’s classmates from West Point suggested that they all move to Knollwood, the couple was ready. “We had been coming here for so many years, and we knew it was a great place,” Thelma explained. 

Support and Camaraderie

Thelma has now been living at Knollwood for 18 years. When Col. Mrazek became ill, she was relieved to have the care he needed right on campus. She noted, “Anytime he got sick in our apartment, a nurse would come immediately. I was never alone!”

After her husband passed away, Thelma benefited from the assistance of her friends and neighbors. “Everyone was so supportive. That is truly one of the biggest benefits of a community like this,” she recalled. “In times of grief, and anytime you need support, the community is there to offer help and advice.” 

As a widow, Thelma is grateful for the camaraderie she experiences on a daily basis. “We really are a close group. There is always someone to do something with,” she said. She noted that the community has a full schedule of activities including frequent day trips to nearby museums and attractions, engaging speakers, and clubs for everything from games to woodworking. 

Thelma also enjoys exploring Knollwood’s picturesque 16-acre campus. “You wouldn’t know we are in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “This is such a beautiful area, and we really take advantage of it.” The community borders Rock Creek Park, one of the country’s largest urban parks. Residents frequent the park independently and in organized walking groups.

A Better Way to Live

The Army Distaff Foundation (ADF), the 501c3 which operates and maintains Knollwood, raises the funds to bring innovation into the community and involves the residents in ongoing research activities—all with the goal of furthering innovations for healthy aging. Fortunately, foundations, corporations and individuals understand the challenges facing communities like Knollwood and provide critical support for research, innovation and technology.  

“I have been involved with an aging study through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for several years,” said Thelma. “Every year, they complete lots of tests to see how I’m aging. About a month later, I get a detailed report on my health, and they get my information to use in their studies.” 

At a recent community meeting, Thelma felt compelled to speak up about her experience with aging. “They were talking about measures the D.C. government should take to help people age in place in their homes,” she said. “I pointed out that many people don’t want to stay in a house by themselves—eat by themselves, cook by themselves, shop by themselves. Instead, they could live in a real community like this.” Thelma concluded, “This is just a much better way to live in your senior years.”

Innovations for Healthy Aging

Knollwood residents don’t just participate in studies, the community is actually the global test site for some of the most advanced technology currently being used to foster independent living for older adults.

To help residents maintain mobility and physical strength, Knollwood is enlisting cutting-edge technology. In February 2018, the community began using the EksoGTTM, a ready-to-wear, battery-powered, adjustable suit that helps patients re-learn proper gait patterns, build muscle and improve balance. This technology can mean the difference between permanent disability and regaining the ability to walk.

Knollwood is the first and only Life Plan community to offer exoskeleton therapy as part of their in-house physical therapy program. The community uses the device to help stroke patients recover and to help other patients rebuild lower body strength and stamina. 

Knollwood is also working with Trinity College, based in Dublin, Ireland, to develop, test and deploy a socially assistive robot. The robot is named Stevie. Socially assistive robots have the potential to improve the quality of life for residents in life plan communities by combating loneliness and handling non-core caregiver jobs. Through a process known as design thinking, residents and caregivers are helping to define the work of Stevie to ensure he meets their needs.  

Stevie is intelligent and can engage residents—facilitating games, playing music and reading books. Future plans call for Stevie to report security threats or safety hazards and perform a host of other administrative duties. For caregivers, robots are vital team members, performing non-essential functions and allowing them to focus on human touch and connection.

“We have all been interested in what they are doing with Stevie,” said Thelma. “It’s great to think that we could help to create a robot that will assist people in their senior years.”

A Study in Aging Well – To Benefit Communities Around the Nation

Intelligent, worldly and open-minded, the residents at Knollwood welcome the use of technology to enhance their lives. They have served their country and now they are proud to live in a community that is doing its part to serve an aging population. For a resident population accustomed to leading in their military careers, it is no wonder they have rallied to lead once more in support of research initiatives, pioneering work in robotics and artificial intelligence, and unique therapy innovations like Ekso bionics.  

Knollwood’s innovative programs and exceptional staff and residents prove how powerful technology can be when it is combined with time together. Merge the force of technology with the often-untapped potential of real human connections, and the possibilities are virtually limitless. 

Knollwood’s residents are using technology and spending time together. They are aging—and they are doing it well. 

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