Technology, while not a fountain of youth, can make aging safer
Older adults could live healthier, stay at home longer
By Constance Gustke, New York Times July 26, 2015
Jean Dickow, 78, never wanted the latest whiz-bang technology. But her gadget-friendly daughter, who lives in Norway, was worried that Dickow would fall in her apartment and that no one would know.
So Dickow was persuaded to put on an Apple Watch look-alike called the Lively safety watch, which has an alert button to push if she falls. Wearing a medical alert pendant that screamed old age was not an option, she said.
Besides displaying the time, the safety watch is also a step counter and even has a medication alert. But Dickow especially likes the watch’s chic look. “My club members ask me where I got the Apple Watch,” said Dickow, of Oakland, California.
“This is a new wave of electronics and how your kids can watch over you,” said Dickow, who does not own a smartphone. “It’s a wonderful time for seniors.”
Gadgets that can ease the burdens of aging are slowly beginning to appear in older adults’ homes and communities. They are designed to respond to vital needs, including caregiving, transportation and living more safely at home. Technology specialists say these new devices can help older adults stay in their homes longer and more cheaply and even can help prevent serious illnesses.
“In three to five years, aging will be transformed,” said Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “We are in the early stages of seeing what technology can do.” Nursing homes will become like the poorhouses of yore as technology makes living at home easier, she said.
Even the White House sees technology as one key to aging well. At the recent White House Conference on Aging, companies trotted out new, transformative technologies to help Americans age more gracefully. And the transportation service Uber announced a pilot program that offers free technology tutoring and free or discounted rides to older Americans at senior centers and other locales in five states.
The Silicon Valley startup Honor, which connects caregivers with older adults through an in-home screen, announced at the conference that it would offer $1 million in free home care in 10 cities. Seth Sternberg, co-founder and CEO of Honor, became concerned about how older people could live better independently when his mother had difficulty driving. Now his mission is to help remake home care.
These technologies echo the hierarchy of human needs outlined by Abraham Maslow in 1943 in his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” published in Psychological Review. They include connection, transportation and ties to a community, said Stephen Johnston, co-founder of the technology accelerator Aging 2.0.
He added that more startups were aimed at caregiving. CareLinx, for example, screens caregivers and even matches a family with an adviser, who helps navigate the process.
“We’re seeing a new emergence of social technology,” Johnston said. “There will be much more personalization.”
The Internet of Things, a network of physical objects that are embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity that enable objects to “talk” to each other, is also closer than most people think, said Joseph Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the smart house of the future, old appliances will be replaced with smarter ones, he said. “The same house will just be more intelligent,” he added.
Older adults are still on the wrong side of the digital divide, according to various studies. But Coughlin said bad products were the culprit, not a dislike for new technologies. “If you make the gadgets fun, people will use them,” he said. “But if they ring of old man, it doesn’t work.”
Baby boomers, he added, will be the new disrupters who adopt the technologies, because they expect to live better.
For now, most smart technology relies on small sensors, invented in the 1950s. They can be placed anywhere in the home to track activity. On the refrigerator, sensors note how often the door is opened. On a home’s front door, they log someone’s comings and goings. Their purpose is to generate data that can be used to prevent illnesses or to reduce hospital trips.
Besides her safety watch, Dickow has Lively sensors throughout her home. A hub in her tea cart transmits the data, which appears on an online dashboard available to her daughter. But Dickow said she had forgotten that the devices were even there. “My daughter didn’t even tell me,” she said.
Anyone can add sensors to a home for only a few thousand dollars, said people who work with older adults.
Some communities for older adults are also tiptoeing into using sensors. Eskaton, which has about 30 campuses in Northern California, put sensors in some of its apartments. Information that is gathered is downloaded several times a day, said Sheri Peifer, chief strategy officer at Eskaton. Data is then analyzed by software and placed in a resident’s snapshot report that is generated every day.
“The system gets to know your personal behavior,” Peifer said. “We’re alerted if there’s no motion, for example.”
One Eskaton resident, Doris Herrilson, 91, said she liked having sensors in her apartment because she felt safer. She fell and broke a hip, and now she uses a walker. “So I’m always afraid of falling again,” she said. “But now, falls can be detected faster. It’s quiet care.”
Of course, no smart-home technology can replace basic installations such as walk-in showers and stair lifts that help older adults take care of themselves, said Barbara Newman, CEO of A Dignified Life in White Plains, New York. “They must be done first,” she said.
Newman also worries that technology may replace the human touch. “If you’re not stimulated by touch as you age, you atrophy sooner,” she said. As a result, she said, she believed that technology was only one part of a holistic approach to aging in your own home.
But Silicon Valley is keen to connect seniors, too. Sternberg, the Honor CEO, said he wanted to help older adults connect through social activities. Happiness and good health are linked, he said. “There is a risk that only physical needs are the focus.”
Despite the awkwardness that can accompany the adoption of new technology, Coughlin of the AgeLab predicts that technology will help people stay at home and manage their frailties far longer than they can today, when the average person who enters assisted living does so at 83.
“Old age looks really good from here,” he said. “But society must make sure that there’s still purpose to life, too.”
Image by Jim Wilson /New York Times