Technology and human aging may seem strange bedfellows at first glance, but their union has produced remarkable advancements in improving the quality of life for both the well and frail elderly.

"While the word 'technology' generally conjures up images of computers, rockets, satellites and robots," writes Dennis LaBuda, author of "The Gadget Book" and director of the Technology Center for the Aged in Miami, "it can be applied to any item that extends the capability of an individual to speak, to pay bills {or} to tie shoes."

Although technology is commonly divided into "low tech" and "high tech," it is difficult to find a simple definition that clarifies the difference between them.

The easiest way to distinguish, said LaBuda in a recent interview, "is to classify low technology as ecological technologies -- non-electronic, non-sophisticated kinds of items such as Velcro, magnifying glasses or plastic gadgets that make turning knobs more manageable. In other words, items that don't need sophisticated instructions for use."

Computers, pacemakers, laser eye-surgery techniques and prosthetic joint replacements represent high technology; grab bars, zipper pulls, walkers and jar openers are low technology.

In between, there lies a vast range of products and devices that might be best described as "middle technology."

Such items include new tracking devices for men and women who have dementia. One project under development involves five government agencies that are working with private industry to develop a humane, versatile "tracking device for people who wander and who are at risk," says Dr. Doris Rouse of Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina.

"NASA is one of the agencies involved. They provide us with the technological support," Rouse said.

One such device has already been developed for use by parents to monitor the whereabouts of small children.

"Kiddy Alert," developed by Cortrex Electronics in San Bernadino, Calif., is composed of a transmitter placed on the child and a receiver carried by the parent. When the child wanders beyond a certain range, an alarm goes off in the receiver. It also houses a tracking device so that the child can be traced.

This product has now been repackaged under the name "Care-Alert" and is being marketed to older consumers, specifically care givers of men and women with Alzheimer's disease, but the gadget's use is not without controversy.

When used with children, the product is relatively innocuous; when translated for use by confused, memory-impaired adults, ethical and legal issues arise.

"Technology can serve to either liberate or incarcerate," observes Elias Cohen, attorney for Community Services Institute Inc. in Narberth, Pa. "It can be used in a non-intrusive way by permitting confused elderly persons to go out unaccompanied without worry by the family of their getting lost or coming to harm."

Or it can be intrusive, Cohen says. "Some nursing care facilities where {confused} residents are required to wear an electronic ankle bracelet that sets off bells and whistles when the patient wanders into certain areas is an example." This type of device is a "badge of diminished capacity," according to Cohen. "It's intrusive, insulting and humiliating. A poor substitution for staff surveillance or advanced environmental modifications."

Other concerns also arise when considering the use of technology. One situation was raised in a class on ethics and aging held recently in Berkeley, Calif. The question presented was this: What if a confused, mentally incompetent person is wandering freely about the neighborhood with a surveillance system monitoring all movement. Suddenly, this person steps off the curb, walks directly into oncoming traffic and causes a serious, perhaps even fatal, accident. Who is responsible for the consequences? The incompetent adult, the care giver or the driver of the car?

So far, such questions have remained hypothetical and have not been tested in the courts, but they raise the issue of the responsible application of technology.

Another mid-tech product that has been developed to serve both the cognitively alert and memory-impaired adult is an electronic alarm that can be programed to buzz up to 16 times each day, reminding the user to take medication, eat or leave for an appointment.

Taking the alarm system to a more sophisticated level, engineers are developing electronic systems to create the first "intelligent house." Alan Schlosser, a spokesman for the Electronic Industries Association, explained that "basically, it will be the central nervous system of the house. It will control everything within the home. You will be able to call home from the office and start the oven, turn off the TV or turn on the lights. We expect the system to be ready in two to three years."

Wireless remote-controlled household-lighting devices, large-display digital scales with voice read-out and affordable, easy-to-install home security systems are currently available. Other items like digital TVs with a screen-within-a-screen allow viewers to watch their favorite program while monitoring a camera surveillance security system simultaneously.

Technological developments for the elderly have even reached the sports industry. Manufacturers are producing specially weighted golf clubs, tennis rackets and bowling balls designed to reduce stress in joints and allow easier use.

All of these technological devices could allow elderly persons more freedom and independence and better personal security and physical activity if they were aware of them. But getting the right product to the right person is often difficult.

"Older people who could benefit from assistive devices are generally unaware of their existence," says Helen Harris, a gerontological marketing specialist from Westport, Conn. They lack this knowledge, she explains, partly because most devices have been developed for the disabled and "not properly positioned in the market."

In fact, the stigma of being "handicapped" has been attached to the use of most assistive devices. Only recently has attention been focused on developing and promoting products and devices for both the elderly who are well and active but frail and the older adult who is frail physically and/or cognitively impaired.

Considering the astonishing number of people turning 65 each day in the United States, it would seem only a matter of time before manufacturers, service providers and others regear marketing strategies toward the elderly.

Today, there are only a few mail-order catalogs, such as "Comfortably Yours" and "Miles Kimbel," for low-tech assistive devices. "Tomorrow, the story will be different," says Harris.

Nancy Peppard is a gerontological consultant in Rockville.