How New Technology May Adapt to Serve Retirees by 2035

By Nushin Rashidian | Print This Article

In New Zealand, a company has developed flooring tiles that absorb the impact of falls.

In Japan, a wearable robot suit called the Hybrid Assistive Limb uses sensors that read nerve signals and tell the suit how to move, assisting people who have weakened muscles or disabilities.

In the United States, the Center for Aging Services Technologies is working on a mattress pad that can assess vital signs like heart rate and breathing, and transmit the data to health-care professionals.

In a host of ways, virtually every American community and institution will have to adapt to aging in the next 25 years.

With every Baby Boomer turning 65 by 2029, the United States will have its largest elderly population ever. And with health-care costs soaring and a shortage of professional caregivers already evident—coupled with older adults’ desire to live independently in their own homes—more aging-related technologies will be incorporated into peoples’ daily lives, predicts Majd Alwan, vice president of the LeadingAge Center for Aging Services Technologies.

“All of the studies show they want to age in place,” Jeffery Rosenthal, a Hofstra University gerontologist, says of seniors. “People are putting technologies into place now that are going to help them.”

Thousands of products already in development will make elderly Americans’ activities simpler and safer. The idea is to create communities that don’t isolate older people, Rosenthal says.

Elder-friendly homes will likely incorporate robotics, mechanical helpers that move around the home like a much improved Roomba, the present-day robotic vacuum cleaner. They’ll operate in combination with domotics, the wired sensory framework of the home itself; a house will “know” if its occupants are at home or out, for example.

“We’re going to move into an era of smart residential technologies and homes,” says Rosenthal.

Aging technology will change the experience of growing old, both inside the home and outside, in the community.

Imagine an ordinary day in 2035. As you sleep, the aforementioned bed pad—with sensors woven throughout—checks for irregularities in your vital signs. An accompanying electronics box stores monthly data and brings abnormalities to your and your doctor’s attention. In the morning, your iPhone-like pill dispenser reminds you to take your medicine and alerts your doctor to renew prescriptions. The refrigerator lets you know that the milk is going to spoil in three days and offers breakfast suggestions to maintain healthy cholesterol.

Community spaces will adapt too. Machines at the gym will recommend workouts based on your physical needs and limitations. In the supermarket, shelves will rotate so you don’t have to reach too high or bend uncomfortably low. Much of this adaptation will be made possible by a personalized radio-frequency identification chip that stores basic driving, financial and health information on a card. Alwan says the day may come when this chip is inserted in peoples’ thumbs instead.

One thorny question is how to pay for these new technologies. Much of the cost may fall on taxpayers. The 2010 health-care law contains several provisions that may quicken the adoption of aging-related technologies, including portable digital health-care records and telemedicine.

In the long term, though, technology could save money. As people age they often suffer from multiple chronic illnesses, requiring a variety of physicians and other health-care professionals. Currently, Alwan says, there’s no technology to help doctors coordinate patient care, which can lead to repeated procedures, unnecessary hospital readmissions and increased costs. “Physician A doesn’t know what physician B has prescribed for the same individual,” Alwan said. “That causes medical errors.”

One provision of the health-care reform law calls for the creation of electronic health records. Medicare and Medicaid will give physicians and hospitals financial incentives to adopt electronic health records and share patients’ information.

Nushin Rashidian was one of three students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism who produced this multimedia project for News21, a collaborative effort in online media of top U.S. journalism schools, in 2010. Connor Boals and Shane Snow also contributed. The piece is reproduced here with permission.


A Day in the Life of Elderman

What will the United States look like when the elderly population swells? In this animated cartoon, a town is portrayed in 2035—after every Baby Boomer has turned 65. Design and aging-technology experts are racing to create the spaces and technologies that will accommodate the largest elderly population the nation has ever had. As the cartoon follows 75-year-old “Elderman” through his daily routine, you’ll see how design and technology may merge to change our environment, making life safer and simpler as we age.

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