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Friday, March 27, 2009

Technology is allowing Seniors to age in place

The increased independence baby boomers and seniors will enjoy because of technological change is unprecedented.

Baby Boomers are caught in a huge time warp. They have seen more change than any generation. They were the first generation to be raised on TV. Recently, I was stopped at a traffic light. In the lane beside me a man in his mid-sixties was sitting in his 1940 s Rolls Royce, text messaging on his palm pilot.

Boomers as a generation have moved all the way from party-line phones -- to Voice Over Internet Protocol (Voip), Skype, MSN, cell phones and palm pilots. While we are most aware of technology changes in the way we stay in contact with our loved ones, it impacts every aspect of our lives. We know technology is here to stay and we have little understanding of how much impact it will have on our ability to live independent lives as we age.

Each Boomer gets stuck at different points with the latest technology, using some of it but struggling to understand new technologies for the first time, and their adaptability depends greatly on how long they have been using computers. The Boomer generation and their relationship with technology is like learning English as a second language (ESL) as an adult. ESL adults struggle their whole lives to become competent in English, whereas the child who learns English prior to age 5, even if it is their second or even third language, experiences little difference than a child whose first language is English.

For the Baby Boomer, computers are a second language, and they will always be challenged when faced with learning some new software. That being said, increasing numbers of seniors are quickly adapting to online shopping and 1 in 3 seniors, most of whom have the computer skills to use the internet, plan to make at least one purchase online in the next year.

At a very fundamental level this makes life easier. Shopping at home is more convenient for those lacking mobility, and will be an asset to most Boomers as they get older. Let s face it; Boomers were not born with a joy stick in one hand and a mouse in the other. Fortunately, computer technology is becoming increasingly user-friendly, and when it comes to living aids, this minimizes the learning curve.

Complex applications of technology show great promise for seniors seeking to maintain independence as long as possible. The good news about most of these devices is they do not require the user to acquire complex computer skills. It is seldom any more difficult than using a TV remote.

According to the 2000 U.S. census, approximately 42% of the population age 65 and older is living with a disability. As we move toward 2050, all of the Baby Boomers will be well into their 80 s and beyond. Physical and cognitive impairment will be experienced at a higher rate than in any previous decade. Young people will be far outnumbered by the elderly, and while it isn t possible to replace the human side of caregiving, we will be relying on Artificial Intelligence to support our needs and to enable us to live independently for as long as possible.

Presently, only 3% of the US population is over 80 and by 2050 more than 7% will be over 80. Computer technology can provide benefits such as lift chairs to help people rise from a seated position, devices to open doors, text-to-speech devices to assist the visually impaired, digital hearing aids and devices to control household appliances using hand gestures. Alarm devices can bring help when a senior is in need of assistance, and are now able to remind the senior it is time to take medication through the ability of the device to sense when the wearer is eating. Wheel chairs are becoming better designed to avoid obstacles. All of these advances in technology add to quality of life for the disabled and their caregivers.

As longevity increases, it is inevitable that vision and hearing loss, decreased mobility and agility, memory loss and difficulty negotiating routines such as medication schedules, increases. Unfortunately the aging person can be less aware of declining mental and physical capabilities than onlookers are. Most seniors do not see themselves as disabled, and as a result are slower to adopt the devices they need. This doesn t only apply to technological devices; it applies for simple aids such as grab bars, non-slip surfaces for tubs or tools to help them reach items without climbing on a chair or step stool. In part the ability to accept help comes from educating seniors to the advantages. It isn t hard to accept devices that people of all ages could benefit from, as the aging stigma is removed. One such strategy is an electronic scheduling device.

Electronic scheduling devices can be programmed to help someone with a complex regime to stay on track. For instance, a diabetic who must eat meals at specified intervals and take specific medications at meal time and at bedtime can have a challenge, even if they are mentally alert. The ability to use a device with reminder alarms can improve results of a treatment plan.

Another category of assistive devices that most people have little difficulty accepting are devices that allow them to continue their favourite activities. Oversized playing cards or implements that help with low vision or limited fine motor skills, such as finger dexterity, enable users to continue the things they love to do. Aids that take the place of bending and lifting allow seniors to continue activities like bowling, golfing and gardening.

Alzheimer s disease or dementia sufferers are the focus of researchers seeking to develop Artificial Intelligence to assist those who have cognitive impairment. Telecare electronically brings trained professionals to those who need advice and/or to monitor activities. Assessment systems that track activities alert caregivers if changes in behaviour patterns indicate the user is not performing daily activities consistently by assessing the elder s cognitive status. Systems at this level provide assurance (Assurance Systems) and more in-depth systems offer compensation (Compensation Systems) by reminding the elder to carry out daily activities, what they need to do and how to do it. Devices and systems that monitor activity help design programs to give the level of assistance needed and can call for help if someone has fallen, failed to eat or take medication and so on.

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