Scientists and researchers are working overtime to help older people age in place. And that’s a good thing—most of us do want to stay at home as long as we can.
One company pursuing this is K4Connect, a tech firm that serves older adults with disabilities. The CEO, Scott Moody has a dream, and it has a good chance of coming true.
Moody thinks in broad strokes. He believes that in five years home automation for older adults, still very complex, will connect us to the “Internet of Things” (IoT), allowing us to seamlessly access apps that will help us age in place. He envisions:
“In a perfect IoT system, an older person could stand up in the middle of the night and a light would automatically turn on and potentially prevent a fall. Or if the person missed taking a medication, an alert would come over his or her in-house stereo system.”
Doorbells, door locks, motion sensors, streaming music, monitors for rising blood pressure and pill reminders, will be automated, he proposes. Videos and photos, controlled by the users’ smartphone or laptop, could be sent periodically to off site caregivers.
Moody and others like him are a new kind of researcher. They don’t buy into the statistics that put millions of older people helplessly dependent in old age homes. Instead, they see a different world of people living in their own homes, long after anyone thought it possible. And the good news—the technological breakthroughs for this have already been achieved, ready to be put in place as soon as systems are perfected.
We older people are observing these developments with a wary, watchful eye. We are a vibrant, independent group. We range from the Silent Generation, aged 72 to 92, to the Baby Boomers, now entering our 70s.
We are aware that our numbers are surging—33 million of Americans among us turned 70 this year, and by 2030, the time our entire generation reaches retirement age, there will be almost 55 million of us. That puts us at 15% of the population, with a proportion needing help as we age.
We are also aware that researchers predict a caregiver shortage—this report is typical of the warnings we see:
“Older generations now have lots of Boomers to care for them. But with lower rates of marriage and fewer children, the Baby Boom generation and Gen X will have smaller pools of caregivers.”
We know that an entire industry of technological experts are concerned with our welfare, and worry that we could ‘sink’ the economies of some countries.
But we won’t do that, you know—it’s not going to happen. We cover a wide spectrum of economic standing and physical and mental health, and we don’t think about ourselves in terms of our disabilities. Those are represented as well, but they do not define us, as Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab, says in a recent essay for Next Avenue:
“But while this may be the story for some older adults, illness and older age are not equivalents. And even elderly patients managing chronic disease want to do things that do not involve their ‘conditions’.”
There are many of us who are healthy, and many, many more of us who think it’s our responsibility to stay that way. Recent statistics support this assertion:
In England, Aura Donnelly, Health Editor for the Telegraph, Aug, 2014, reports that although the period from 2001 to 2011 shows that despite an 11 per cent rise in the number of people aged 65 and over, the number of people living in care homes is almost unchanged.
In 2011, around 291,000 pensioners were living in such accommodation – just 1,000 more than a decade earlier.
In the US, there are an estimated 78 million baby boomers. So, approximately 5 percent, or 3.9 million are expected to need future care in a nursing home. Today, a senior citizen (65+) has about a one-in-four chance of spending time in a skilled care facility.
On behalf of those who will need care, we are happy that the scientific community has us in its sights and are developing innovations that will help us with our physical needs.
Newer on the research scene, but rapidly gaining the imagination of researchers, is the possibility of using automation, or more specifically, artificial intelligence, for social reasons. Friendly, life-like robots, some with the capability to solicit affection from their users, have already been developed for the older adult who is lonely and isolated, and in need of connection.
Some are in the form of pets, such as the companion robot ElliQ, who has been given pet-like characteristics with convincing accuracy, and the capability to build relationships and bond, as witnessed in a residence in Israel:
“Hebrew Home got its first one in March. Ms. Farkas tried it out on a resident in her late 70s who was searching in a panic for her long-deceased parents. Usually, someone in this situation would be given a tranquilizer. Instead, Ms. Farkas handed her a robotic cat. The woman calmed right down.”
Still, this is a new and disturbing direction for the application of artificial intelligence. Potential use and relationship building of humans with robotic forms raises ethical questions:
-Are users (in this case older people) given the chance to present their perspective?
-In the case of Alzheimer’s patients, are they given control and do they understand that the ‘pet’ is fictional, and a robot?
I caution the scientific community to think carefully about how it involves older people in its experiments. Any innovations developed on our behalf must be approached with care and respect for human values.
And yet, it’s inevitable that with the first surge of Baby Boomers hitting their 70s—with a huge wave to follow—technology will play a growing role in enabling older adults like us to be independent and live in our homes longer. Most of us, I’m quite sure, will welcome it!