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Reflections on the Technology that Targets Older Adults

About a month ago during my commute home from work, something began to irritate me.

It wasn’t the unusually long wait for the train, or the passenger who squeezed herself into the four-inch space next to me a few moments later. Instead, it was the article I was reading in the New York Times about the business opportunities that abound for those who can develop – and successfully sell – products and services for the mature market (a.k.a. the Baby Boomers).

The Boomers are a “market” I know well.

Since receiving my Master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University, I’ve spent significant time on the front lines of health care helping 40, 50 and 60-somethings, to weather one of life’s most challenging roles — family caregiver to an aging parent.

In that time I’ve assisted quite a few adult daughters and sons to navigate the many twists and turns in the elder care maze – from hospital to home, through the sometimes agonizing process of hiring help, or enacting power of attorney, and through what is perhaps the most challenging passage of all – moving a parent with dementia into a nursing home after promising that this would never happen.

These experiences have enabled me to gain insight into how Boomers will approach aging based upon the decline they’ve witnessed in their parents, while at the same time introducing me to the myriad of unmet needs of those who are old now.

So what was it exactly that bothered me about this seemingly benign article?


It was the single-minded focus on technology as a panacea of sorts…

THE WAY to keep the elders of tomorrow living healthfully and independently for as long as possible.

To be clear, I am no hater of technology. I may not have loved my iPhone and all it’s gadgetry enough to keep it, but I have the utmost respect for its capability and the innovations that make it possible.

However I don’t believe as the article subtly asserts, that technology may hold the key to delaying or even preventing an older adult’s entry into long-term care.  Instead, I believe that people hold the key and that the gold standard  — the best that any of us can hope for as we age  — is face-to-face, eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand interactions with caring, compassionate people as often as possible. I would argue that there is no substitute for this and that in many instances it is more powerful than medicine.

What older adults need and technology can’t provide

In a culture where we’ve become accustomed to expressing our thoughts in 140 characters or less, and one in which we count a person as a “friend” simply because that person agrees to get updates on our lives, it’s easy to lose sight of this most significant need for real relationships.

It’s also easy to assume (as I think the researchers developing these products and services have) that because Boomers have taken to Twitter and Facebook much more readily than their World War II parents that they’ll be more receptive to technology designed to support them as they age.

Maybe so.  But, I would argue — not forever.  And not unless there are also people around to provide emotional support to the older adult.

Why? Because chances are very good that illness and injury will creep in despite any of our best efforts to keep them at bay.  And when this happens, loneliness  – and grief over the things that can’t be done anymore or with the same ease – may follow.

This is the boat within which many of us will find ourselves at some point, and to be clear, it will mark the middle, not the end of our journey at home.  A nursing home or assisted living facility may be physically, emotionally or financially out of our reach for many years to come…

Now ask an older adult in this boat how he/she feel about the fiber optic cables installed years earlier, the ones that support the daily tracking of their walking speed, posture, sleep, pill taking and computer game scores. Chances are good that you’ll find the novelty has long since worn off.

This is when technology begins to feel like a Big Brother whose always watching but never comes to visit anymore.

I feel so strongly that those conducting research in laboratories around the country may be missing this bigger picture about what it means to age that I’m going to share more of my thoughts on the topic over the next several weeks.

And if any of this fires you up as much as it does me (regardless of your position!), please leave a comment below or drop me a line.


{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Meghan O'Sullivan March 8, 2011, 10:19 AM

    You are absolutely correct. Technology is not a panacea. It certainly makes a boring dinner companion compared to a son or daughter or even a friend at the table. At some point many of us will need the assistance of a person whoever that may be to steady us and help us bathe or sit at our bedside when we can no longer get out of bed.

    It is my belief that the place of technology is much like that of a cane or a walker. It is an assistive device to prolong our independence. It is definitely not warm and fuzzy but it serves a purpose and its role when coupled with a caring person is powerful.

    If I need a device to remind me to take my medication on time and then call my caregiver if I don’t take it. I would prefer that over ending up in the ER with a stroke or a bleed because I was inconsistent with my Coumadin. Incorrect use of medications is a tremendous problem for everyone but particularly for the elderly because of the number of chronic conditions usually being treated.

    I may not be able to afford or don’t want a 24 hour home attendant. On the other hand I am willing to have help for 10-12 hours a day and I would like the choice to use technology at night for the “just in case”. This is especially true when the alternative is leaving my apartment.

    If my daughter is frequently leaving work to check on me or panics when I don’t answer the phone perhaps technology can ease her anxiety. She can know that I left the apartment 30 minutes ago and just try again later. She can also know that I have eaten lunch or taken my medications or that I got out for my usual morning walk and returned safely. This does not in any way negate the importance of our conversations during the day.

    If the technology tells my caregiver that I was in the bathroom 5 times last night this may prevent a devastating fall. I wasn’t going to bother her with that small of a problem but because she knows she is able to ask about it and discover that the new medication is giving me diarrhea or that I may have a UTI. Both of these problems could make me weak and contribute to a fall.
    Caring and often loving people are at the heart of successful aging. It would be a grim reality to be monitored (I can’t even say cared for) by a computer ticking off our daily activities until we break a “rule”. On the other hand technology, when paired with a caregiver, is a powerful tool to assist us and our caregivers in preventing problems or reacting to new situations, like a fall, as fast as possible. A computer will never replace a person but it could assist us in living independently as long as possible.

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