Two concurrent trends—the shifting demographics toward an aging population and the emergence of dramatic new technologies—are converging to create an intensified focus on improving the quality of life for seniors.
“Outthink Aging,” a report from IBM and the Consumer Technology Association Foundation released in September 2016, outlines the challenges of meeting the needs of the aging population and addresses the potential for leveraging new technologies for seniors that will extend their independence while also helping them to better manage everyday activities and connect more meaningfully with loved ones.
The demographic trends driving this need are global in nature and will intensify in the coming decades. By 2050, according to United Nations statistics cited in the report, more than one out of five people will be age 60 and older.
“Technology does not replace the human element, but it’s a tool that will enable the growing aging demographic and caregivers to better our lives as we age,” says Steve Ewell, executive director of the CTA Foundation.
The Consumer Technology Association, which represents more than 2,000 technology companies, launched the foundation in 2012 to focus on how technology can help older adults and people with disabilities. Its partnership with IBM, announced in January 2016, is a major step forward in fulfilling that mission. “New partnerships between industry, non-profits, academia, government, and the general public will form to accomplish these goals,” Ewell reports.
Independence with Technology
Research from AARP and others confirms that the vast majority of elders want to remain independent for as long as possible, and for many, this translates into a desire to remain in their homes. “Technology can be used to help people essentially augment their ability to age in place,” says Susann Keohane, Global Research Leader, Strategic Initiative on Aging at IBM.
From a caregiving perspective, technology allows caregivers to stay on top of their parent’s needs—for instance, with connected devices and ambient sensors that can help provide valuable information on how well someone is going about their day by monitoring changes in the environment around them.
“This is not meant as a replacement for human care,” Keohane stresses, “but as a means of providing more insightful information that will allow someone to better care for their loved one or their elder client.”
Technology also has the ability to identify signs that a transition to another type of living environment is warranted. “A lot of these major transitions that occur in life happen from an emotional standpoint—i.e., ‘Mom, I’m worried about you, you’re alone, what if something happens?” Keohane observes. “Technology allows you to get a more analytic view.”
Addressing Senior Concerns
“Outthink Aging” defines four essential aspects reflecting the core desires of an aging population as they relate to living an independent life:
- Health: access to high-quality healthcare and services that encourage physical/cognitive health
- Connection: staying connected with family, friends and the community
- Security: protection against theft and financial fraud, while also having personal safety in the home
- Dignity and independence: which includes striking a balance between the desire for privacy and the need for support
As a means of addressing those four issues, one area that’s getting attention is the Internet of Things—or IoT—which is a collective term to describe devices that are able to send and receive data. As an example, Ewell cites devices in the home that can be used to control lighting, the thermostat, and security through phone, voice control or another type of interaction.
“One of the exciting things about these technologies is that the are not necessarily being designed to address aging specifically; they’re general consumer technologies that happen to have features that can create greater independence for someone who’s older or has a disability,” Ewell explains.
One benefit of cognitive technology is the ability to help individuals stay secure, Ewell explains. “For instance, if someone wakes up in the middle of the night and they are worried—‘Did I close the garage door or lock the front door?’—these devices can control or confirm that it’s taken care of.”
Such technology also can be helpful for caregivers who need affirmation that everything is all right in the loved one’s home. However, Ewell cautions, “It needs to be done with the right degree of privacy, so that it’s really a benefit to the older adult and not just a matter of keeping watch.”
Combined with cognitive computing, IoT also can be useful in an assisted living setting. To gain more insights into this, IBM and the Avamere Family of Companies recently announced a six-month research study that will apply the power of IBM cognitive computing to improving eldercare at Avamere’s senior living and health centers. By analyzing data streaming from sensors, Avamere hopes to identify risks and gain insights with the goal of minimizing hospital readmission rates.
An Intriguing Future
As part of its continuing partnership, the CTA Foundation and IBM have undertaken a new joint initiative: self-driving transportation. Joining them in this endeavor is a third partner, Local Motors, which launched Olli in 2016 as the world’s first cognitive self-driving vehicle powered by IBM Watson technology. The partners are working together to crowd-source new cognitive technology solutions to support this initiative.
Concerns about driverless safety and accessibility are already being addressed. “Many of the vehicles developed today have a wide array of built-in sensors that enable the vehicles to be aware of challenges from other vehicles on the road,” Ewell reports. “These advanced sensors, and the fast reaction times of the vehicles, allow self-driving vehicles to be more likely to identify and avoid potential issues than human drivers.”
For an elderly population, Ewell observes that there may be opportunities to change the driver role into one of a concierge or assistant who can help with passengers’ specific needs.
This is just one of many intriguing technologies that have potential for improving older people’s lives. As Keohane observes, the challenges of aging come primarily from a loss of ability over time. “Those of us who are working on these issues have an accessibility background. We know how to make technology work for people who have disabilities. In the case of elders whose abilities are changing, we can help them with technology that meets them where they’re at in life.”