Part of the Aging and Innovation Special Report
Pop quiz: When you think about how technology will personally impact your life over the next 10 to 20 years, which of these things do you envision as being part of that evolution?:
A) Holographic technology to communicate with your family
B) A car that chauffeurs you around
C) 3-D-printed medicine
D) Drones to help with household activities
E) All of the above
If the tech-prognosticators are to be believed, the correct answer is E: All of those Jetsons-sounding devices will be available in the coming not-so-many years.
Engineering and technology has improved our quality of life beyond recognition. The future is set to be just as exciting and transformational.
— Naomi Climer, president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology
Whether that news thrills or terrifies you, it’s ultimately a good thing, because these technological developments can help older adults and those who are housebound with tasks keep them mobile, keep them at home longer and help them stay connected to others, which is one of the most important factors for a long and fulfilling life.
“Loneliness is at epidemic levels among elders in the U.S. today,” says Juliet Holt Klinger, senior director of dementia care and programs at Brookdale Senior Living, a leading provider of assisted living and home care. A colleague of hers, Brookdale Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kevin O’Neil, agrees. “Human connection is crucial for people at all ages, but especially so for seniors,” he says.
“Loneliness in this age group is associated with shorter life spans, chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, depression and even dementia,” O’Neil adds. “That’s why engaging seniors with others is a focus of our communities. Helping those in their 80s and above connect through technology is an opportunity to enhance their well-being even further.”
In fact, a recent study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that healthy and mildly cognitively impaired people over 70 who engaged in daily face-to-face online conversations for six weeks showed “significant improvements in cognitive skills.”
Despite all the exciting developments coming down the pike, however, there’s currently a Pacific Ocean–sized gap between what’s available now and what’s accessible to the general older adult population.
According to a recent survey by tech-services provider Bask, eight in 10 older Americans lack the means to utilize the technology — but they would “make greater and more frequent use of information and communications technology (ICT) if they had ready access to support and assistance.”
Even something as simple as having a friend around to answer tech questions could pave the way to their increased tech use; more than 80 percent acknowledge that technology can help them stay connected to loved ones and live longer in their own homes.
Bask’s research indicates that only one-third of respondents use a personal computer at least once a month, and fewer than one in five text. Close to 50 percent said they don’t go online “because it takes too long to understand and keep up with technological change.” And a full 39 percent said they felt “only somewhat connected or not connected at all to their families.” Recent research from Brookdale further found that 27 percent of people over 80 are “virtual shut-ins.”
There’s no easy fix, but as more health care providers, assisted-living homes, governmental agencies and NGOs get onboard, more support could be forthcoming. For now, however, it’s up to us — friends and family — to take the initiative and help and mentor our older loved ones with technology. There’s plenty of useful advice out there; this page from parentgiving.com offers a good compendium and can get you started.
The “Brave New World” Stuff
There was a noticeable sea change at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas: a greater emphasis on needs of people in their 70s, 80s and beyond. Kathy Birkett, a founder and editor of Senior Care Corner, says that just five years ago there was next to nothing at the show for them, but that there’s been a gradual increase over the last half-decade.
“We’re seeing some new devices that are easier to use, portable and easy to read,” she notes, which to her is an indication that manufacturers are finally “kind of getting the idea of seniors being able to actually use them independently.”
A few of the gadgets aimed at older users include a programmable “universal monitoring solution” called Mother that sends a reminder to people to take their meds if the bottle has been stationary past a predetermined amount of time. Another notable debut was a smart TV called Angela, designed for folks who aren’t comfortable using a smartphone or tablet yet want to be able to video chat and share photos and messages.
The fact that the number of people 60 and above is expected to more than double by 2050 and that the number of people 80-plus will increase more than sevenfold by 2100 isn’t lost on the R+D folks.
“Future tech will increase older people’s independence and help relieve the health services,” says Naomi Climer, the new president of the prestigious Institution of Engineering and Technology. Already, she notes, “engineering and technology has improved our quality of life beyond recognition. The future is set to be just as exciting and transformational.”
In her inaugural speech last fall, Climer said that in 2050, when she’ll be in her 80s, she expects her life to include some, if not all of the following:
- Being woken up in her intelligent house by the curtains that automatically open when they detect that she’s in her lightest sleep phase
- Taking 3-D-printed medicine personally created for her containing all the drugs needed for the day
- Wearing “chainmail-like fabric” that allows her complete mobility without a wheelchair
- Using holographic technology to beam family members into her home
- Traveling in a fully autonomous vehicle available on demand
It almost sounds too good to be true for those of us who would be excited if we could get our parents to answer a Skype call with the video on.