Designing for seniors

XIV.4 July + August 2007
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Technology and aging

Susan Walker, Michael Sarfatti

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The late American feminist and activist Betty Friedan once said, 'Aging is not 'lost youth' but a new stage of opportunity and strength." We live in an information age that changes at a hectic pace, especially as we move into an always-on state of connectivity. As my parents got older, they found adapting to new technologies and using electronics in their daily life positively overwhelming. Not so with my generation: As I grow older, I embrace technology as a real opportunity to stay connected and independent even as age-related or chronic disabilities might slow me down. I believe that smart technologies will bridge the aging gap for me and my peers, helping us to maintain a higher quality of life and remain contributing members of society longer than my parents.

This mindset is not uncommon for us boomers. The word 'retirement" is not in our vocabulary. The 'Post War Baby Boomers," as we are officially called, are a large cohort born between 1946 and 1964. Ranging in age from 42 to 60, this is the largest segment of the U.S. population today, approximately 78 million strong. If you look at census estimates, by 2023, one in five Americans will be over 65. The boomer demographic also controls most of the buying power and will for many years to come, estimated at $3 trillion in money and assets. Thanks to improvements in health care, lifestyle, and exercise, plus better education and not smoking, boomers will live longer than previous generations. With the assets at their fingertips, they are not afraid to invest in products and services that will enhance mobility and quality of life.

Boomers have been a disruptive force on society's infrastructure, a transforming agent at each stage in their lives. They have been responsible for the building frenzy of new schools in the '50s and '60s, new communities, bigger homes, and more jobs to continually accommodate their needs as they moved through the milestones of maturing. So it is not surprising to see the enlarging of retirement communities, hospitals, and nursing homes in preparation for the future. However, this expansion might be insufficient for future demand.

This is where technology will play an essential role: The untapped potential of technology holds the greatest key in helping both society and the individual cope with the aging process. That is why the development of smart connected products and systems for the home and health is critical.

The aging factor is creating many new business opportunities for companies creative enough to recognize the market potential of the boomer demographic. The time is ripe for the investment community to develop venture funds, testing and incubation labs to challenge entrepreneurs, startups and leading edge companies to include in their business plans the development of smarter devices for elders. Building on these emerging technologies, the business community can create aware living spaces that assist decision making, promote personal safety, and support independent living.

Several universities have projects underway, for example the AgeLab and House_n Project (PlaceLab), both at MIT, with projects specifically in areas of auto safety, driving, personal mobility, and self-empowered health care using sensors for smart living spaces. Another is the Aware Home Research Initiative at Georgia Institute of Technology, which is addressing challenges facing the future of domestic or home technologies. Georgia Tech's Broadband Institute Residential Laboratory is a 5,040-square-foot home that functions as a living laboratory for interdisciplinary design and evaluation. Another notable center is the University of Rochester's Center for Future Health focusing on personal health technology for self care. Large technology companies such as Microsoft, Intel, Philips Honeywell, and GE have made commitments to research and develop technologies for independent living and proactive health care.

Until recently, most discussions of technology for seniors focused on software and Internet access, not practical solutions for age related disabilities such as sight, hearing, and mobility loss or chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. In 2006 Intel and several other large companies joined together in the Continua Health Alliance to establish standards of interoperability and promote digital heath products for personal management. Consumers' desire for more control of their own health care management is creating the need for touch points between home and health care providers for information exchange. Technology can fill a critical role in transforming a healthcare industry that is not able to handle the increasing numbers of aging patients.

In Japan, corporations are investing in the management of their aging society by developing innovative products for the home of the future, where appliances such as smart toilets will provide testing and analysis to their users. Another example is a refrigerator that will help track the temperature of food, identify spoilage, or assist the caregiver or children of the elderly in monitoring diet and ordering groceries.

back to top  The Big Issues to Overcome

Currently, the technology-development trend is focused on the younger, gadget-hungry consumer. Take, for instance, the ubiquitous cell phone morphing into a personal-entertainment device. Our kids who cannot survive without a 24/7 mode of connectivity will be the future caregivers for their aging parents. Today many adults see cell phones getting smaller, with tiny screens and keypads making it difficult to use these devices for texting, let alone a phone call. Designers and user-experience professionals will need to address the age, communication, and usage gap. Medical-device companies are trying to develop and introduce digital and consumer-health devices into overly complex, isolated health care systems that lack incentives to adopt these technologies. These and many other areas are ripe for opportunity and change.

In the future we envision products leveraging technology with smart wireless handhelds, interacting with RFID tags to help individuals remember to take medications or just find lost items such as glasses, a checkbook, or keys. The use of sensors with ambient technology could prevent fires in the home by warning of a forgotten pot on a stove, or alert someone if the water inadvertently was left running in the tub or a back door left open. The opportunity for an individual to better manage their exercise and health care will be enhanced by personal-trainer devices that take a quick blood pressure reading and encourage exercise and diet modification.

As our society ages and the elderly population increases, the home will be the focal point for many of these technologies to create assistive living spaces. The future aging consumer will want to be proactive in managing their own health issues plus addressing chronic age-related disabilities head-on with the use of technologies connected to their health care providers. The time is right for our society to start planning for and developing toward these goals with smart systems that will support independent living for the elderly and people of all ages.

back to top  References

* URLS: Research done exclusively on the Web:

Continua Health Alliance,

Ease of Use Roundtable,

Georgia Tech—Aware Home,

Georgia Tech Broadband Residential Lab,

MIT AgeLab,

MIT House_n Project (PlaceLab),

University of Rochester,

back to top  Authors

Susan Ayers Walker
SmartSilvers Alliance

Michael Sarfatti
SmartSilvers Alliance

About the authors

Susan Ayers Walker has more than 40 years of experience in emerging technologies encompassing semiconductors, hardware and software design, and applications development. She is founder and managing director of the SmartSilvers Alliance. She is also an active board member of the MIT Enterprise Forum, which was formed to support connections to technology entrepreneurs and to the communities in which they reside. Susan has recently retired as chairman of the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab (VLAB). She holds a B.S.E. from Northeastern University and a M.S. in computer science from Rutgers University. She is also the computer and technology writer for AARP.ORG.

Michael Sarfatti is cofounder and managing director of the SmartSilvers Alliance. He has more than 30 years experience in a variety of industries—including petrochemical, financial services, and information technology—holding positions in engineering, training, marketing/sales, business development, and executive management. Since 1988, he has been an officer and director of the MIT Club of Northern California. Michael was also the co-founder of the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Bay Area (dba MIT/Stanford Venture Lab, aka VLAB), currently serving on the organization's advisory board. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering, and is a registered professional mechanical engineer.

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