From a gerontological perspective, we are at an exciting time in the history of aging. As a society, we are nearing a tipping point. Within the next decade, we will see the largest percentage of people over the age of 65 than ever before. Over the last century and a quarter, we’ve experienced an extraordinary expansion of our life expectancy. The addition of 50-plus years in life expectancy is thanks to the advancements in medicine, public health, safety innovations and environmental science. While living longer is a positive thing, it presents its own challenges.
For one thing, our population “pyramid” is now becoming a rectangle. And as such, our economic, social, cultural and health systems must continue to adapt in order to support a large segment of our population living longer. We will no longer be able to rely on the assumption that the younger members of society will be available to care for our older members. As we continue into the 21st century, technological advancements will play an important role in impacting how well people live in later life.
Increasing lifespans and health spans
Sadly, many people fear living longer. Who wants to live longer if quality of life is diminished? The term “healthy aging” can be deceptive and implies that we must all try to age disease-free. In essence, however, healthy aging means living a long, productive, meaningful life regardless of our physical status or limitations. The goal of innovation therefore is to not only to increase a person’s lifespan, but also increase a person’s health span.
From an economic perspective, there is power in numbers. Helping people stay healthier longer prevents an overwhelming demand on healthcare systems. The size of the baby boomer generation presents an enormous consumer base as well.
In his book, “2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Reshape the Future of Everything,” Mauro Guillen refers to gray as the new black. According to Guillen, people over 60 currently contribute $15 trillion annually to global consumer spending. He notes that baby boomers already drive market innovation in several sectors including housing, health, and technology.
“Technology is playing a major role as a disruptor and driving advancements in the field of aging.”
Technology is playing a major role as a disruptor and driving advancements in the field of aging. Artificial Intelligence, or AI, has taken us to the point of sharing and analyzing information at such ease and speed that was simply unheard of just a couple decades ago. New products and services are also continually being developed. Advancements tend to focus on specific areas of concern, such as health and wellness, aging-in-place, mobility and connectivity. Below are some of the products that are already making a difference in the lives of today’s seniors.
[DISCLAIMER: I am happy to share some of the exciting technological advancements that are impacting aging; however, I am not endorsing any of the products or services mentioned.]
Wearable and portable technology for health and wellness
Inspector Gadget meets the 21st century. Seniors no longer need to wear bulky or unsightly pendants to stay safe. Today’s devices are sleek, lightweight and portable. Smart watches and wearables, such as the Apple Watch, Garmin and Fitbit can do more than simply track a person’s daily steps. Some of these devices can monitor heart rate, detect irregular heart rhythms and generate electrocardiograms. Some devices can also be used to collects biometric data to address chronic conditions and transmit that data directly to a person’s healthcare provider. The devices can even detect falls and allow the wearer to call for help during an emergency.
For those with diabetes, portable devices manufactured by companies such as LifeScan, Ascensia and Abbott can detect a person’s glucose levels without painful finger pricks. Researchers at MIT and Harvard have even created a biosensitive ink that can be used to monitor health stats. In the very near future, tattoos will go from being a fashion statement to becoming a health-monitoring asset.
Research shows that people suffering from hearing loss are at greater risk of dementia, isolation, depression and balance disorders. In October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed hearing aid devices to be sold over-the-counter without requiring a hearing exam or a prescription from an audiologist. This ruling allows OTC hearing aids to be more affordable and available to a larger segment of the general public.
Many models of the OTC hearing aids are low profile and automatically adjust to the noise level of the environment. Models are now higher fidelity, rechargeable and Bluetooth compatible. In addition, mobile apps can be used to program and control the devices. The National Council on Aging (NCOA) has a list of the best OTC Hearing Aids for 2022.
Aging in place
Most people prefer to live in their own homes, aging in place for as long as possible. Supporting older adults to be able to age in place not only meets this desired goal; it also reduces the potential burden on the healthcare and long-term care systems. Cloud-based smart devices and smart home technology are fast becoming “must haves” to support aging in place.
One example is Amazon’s subscription-based service, Alexa Together. It uses an Amazon cloud-based smart device, in conjunction with the Alexa app, to provide daily alerts such as appointment and medication reminders; fall detection; and a 24/7 hands-free urgent response system. Remote-assist technology also allows families to manage shopping lists, provide music and entertainment, and communicate with a loved one. More information on Alexa Together can be found here.
Smart home technology also plays an important role in allowing older adults to safely remain in their homes for longer. Sadly, according to NCOA, an elderly person dies every 19 minutes from injuries sustained in a fall. Smart home technology provides home safety and security monitoring. It can make maintaining a home easier and reduce household accidents through automation. Smart homes allow for greater independence for the senior and peace of mind for their caregivers and families.
Mobility and transportation
While wheelchairs and walkers support a person’s ability to navigate their surroundings, they can often be bulky and difficult to manage without the help of others. Technology is moving into the mobility space in exciting ways. For example, a powered wheelchair option called Scewo Bro, is designed to navigate up and down stairs, as well as move on various types of surfaces. Scewo Bro adjusts its height based upon the situation, so the rider does not have to move in and out of the chair to sit at a table or a counter. Unfortunately, this powered wheelchair is still in the early stages of development and currently retails for about $40,000. However, as more developers enter this space, competition will begin to drive down costs and make powered chairs like this more affordable for the everyday user.
Another mobility-related advancement is powered clothing. Think Iron Man without the hard red and gold shell. Powered clothing is designed to be worn as an undergarment and uses electric muscles, powered by tiny motors, to mimic human muscle movement. Software built into the garment tells the electric muscles when to activate. This technology can be used to assist individuals with mobility issues or muscular degeneration. It is also being used in certain industries to help older workers avoid injury from jobs that require constant, repetitive motions.
Connectivity and loneliness
Sadly, studies show that the negative effects of loneliness on seniors is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. With this in mind, finding ways to keep seniors connected is vitally important. One innovator in this space is a service called Papa Pals. It provides vital social support by pairing older adults and families with “papa pals,” trained and vetted companions, who provide companionship and help with, everyday tasks, transportation and more.
Another development in this space is digital care companions. One example is ElliQ a voice-operated care companion robot. It speaks in natural, conversational language and encourages physical and mental activity. It provides entertainment and can be used to connect with family and friends.
Robotics pets are also making their way into the eldercare space. The toy manufacturer, Hasbro, has been developing robotic pets since 2015. These “pets” make life-like sounds and movement without needed the necessary daily care of real pets. Robotic pets provide companionship and comfort to older adults. They have also been shown to be an effective therapy for adults with dementia by reducing agitation and improving relaxation. You can learn more here about the robotic pets offered by Hasbro’s company, Ageless Innovation.
Perhaps one of the most exciting advancements in technology for older adults is the use of Virtual Reality (VR) in the field of aging. VR is being used as both an engagement and therapeutic tool allowing people to travel, explore, and take part in a wide-range of activities despite physical limitations. Recently, a couple living in a retirement community went skydiving to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary through the use of VR technology. Some companies are even creating custom experiences for families, so older adults can virtually attend birthday parties or weddings, or explore the village in Italy where they lived when they were young. A provider for VR technology specifically for seniors is MyndVR.
Beyond our imagination
As we move through the next half of the 21st century, there are certain to be advancements in technology to support later life that we can’t even begin to imagine at this point in time. It is exciting that innovation and technologies are being developed at such a rapid pace. It is important to remember that as Joseph F. Couglhin, Founder of MIT AgeLab says, “The future of aging is not about older people. It’s about all of us.”
Molly Prues, a gerontologist, is CEO and founder of VistaLynk, a company that provides education on the issues that impact older age and caregiving clients. VistaLynk’s ground-breaking programs provide the building blocks to reimagine aging and empower caregiving.