Mel Washburn is a former firefighter, professor, and trial attorney. Whether it was fighting a fire in a building, a classroom, or the courtroom, by the time he retired, he realized that 90% of his social life had revolved around work.
Washburn, 77, knew he had to find a way to socialize in retirement. Washburn also knew he and his wife Pam, 75, wanted to continue living independently in their own home.
He quickly learned that technology could play a crucial role in achieving both goals.
The Washburns are early members of The Village Chicago, a membership-based organization dedicated to connecting and improving the quality of life for Chicagoans over 50, and now connect through both in-person and Zoom events. And they rely on technology to keep their homes safe.
The Washburns are part of a growing population. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050 more than 2 billion people will be aged 60 and over. The United States is changing too. According to Rodney Harrell, vice president of family, home and community at AARP, “In 2034, for the first time, we will have more people over 50 than under 18.” Illinois, where 16.6% of people are 65 and older, is no exception.
“A large majority of people want to stay in their homes as they age,” Harrell said. And technology is increasingly making it possible, from touchless faucets to voice-controlled lights.
However, as Harrell points out, only 1% of homes have features people need to age in place.
Felice Eckhouse, founder of Elderspaces, a Chicago company that helps clients design and modify homes to age in place, attributes this gap to designs that haven’t been adapted much since World War II. “It’s a ying-yang that’s out of whack. We need a space that we won’t retrofit before you can get to the equipment,” Eckhouse said.
But Harrell sees potential for technology to fill some of that gap. “What we (at AARP) are focused on are the changes that can be made at home regardless of medical conditions. Technology can’t do everything, but it plays an amazing role,” he said.
At home, too, Eckhouse says, “Smartphones are the driver behind many digital resources, from hearing aids to security systems, lighting systems, doorways to appliances in the kitchen.”
Smartphones also offer basic help with everyday tasks and communication.
“I still use technology the normal way. If I need to look something up, I look it up online,” said Mel Washburn. “Without my phone, I would have a severe case of boredom: news, books, calling people.”
His wife Pam, who lives with multiple sclerosis, relies heavily on her smartphone as her daily means of communication.
Finding tech solutions for people living in unsuitable homes can feel like a chicken and egg problem. That’s because many technologies require high-speed internet, which isn’t universal, notes Laurie Orlov, senior analyst at Aging and Health Technology Watch, an industry research firm.
However, once the internet service is in place, Orlov said, a variety of options, such as voice-based technologies, motion detection cameras and sensors, “can be used for predictive analytics to identify a potential problem and make the world as safe as possible.” ”
But not everyone is tech-savvy.
Mel Washburn remembers dictaphones and secretarial pools, but he’s also witnessed evolving technology as a partner at a major law firm for over 28 years. Not everyone is comfortable with adopting new devices.
Orlov disputes the common misconception that baby boomers are more comfortable with technology than their previous generation. While developing some comfort, baby boomers want to keep what they have while the tech industry forces change. Telephones are a prime example.
“Most people don’t update their phones as fast as the updates come,” Orlov said. Ultimately, this leads to disabled, older devices, like phones that worked on 3G networks but no longer run on 5G. As a result, “baby boomers are going to be just as frustrated (as was the generation before it),” she said.
Whether it’s giving free tablets as part of an Illinois Department of Aging program or using Zoom for The Village Chicago film club, technology can help seniors age in a number of ways.
“Technology can be a potential big improvement in how homes function and fill in some of the gaps,” Harrell said. The technology doesn’t stop at touchless faucets, activity monitors, and voice-controlled lights to address vision-impairment issues and prevent falls. “There’s a burgeoning technology in sensors that understand behaviors, like when someone got out of bed,” Harrell said.
Even Alexa can be used for more than just turning on the lights, notes Jim Rosenthal, CEO of Caring.com, a free resource for seniors and their families. “It can go a lot further to cameras, microphones and the ability to see everything that’s going on to know that a parent is okay.”
Technology doesn’t have to be complicated either. Patricia Greenberg, owner of The Fitness Gourmet and author of the book Eat Well, Live Well, Age Well, said she loves apps like Noom and MyFitnessPal that help seniors track their personal nutrition and exercise routines. This is just another way technology can help seniors lead healthy, independent lives.
Searching through all the apps and technologies available can be dizzying, but organizations like Village Chicago can help. And resources like AARP, Caring.com, and the Illinois Assistive Technology Program, which provides free information and help with technology, provide important information. For Illinois residents, the Illinois Department of Aging offers a seniors hotline (1-800-252-8966).
Amy Lulich, Senior Policy Adviser at the Illinois Department of Aging, says, “This hotline is a place where someone can not only get an assessment of what they may need to continue living in their home, but also what assistance they may be entitled to.” has received.”
This could include Illinois Care Connections, which provides free iPads, tablets, and Wi-Fi hotspots to eligible individuals through the Illinois Assistive Technology Program. The IATP also conducts other programs and demonstrations of assisted technologies. Because public programs like the Assistive Technology program may be limited in who they can serve, the Illinois Senior Help Line is a useful place to start.
What works for one person may not work for another. In some cases, “technology isn’t always the best solution,” said Caring.com’s Rosenthal.
“The problem we face now,” said Willie Gunther, Executive Director of IATP, “is that seniors need to be educated on what’s possible, and as quickly as possible, before an emergency occurs.”
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