CHICAGO – Mel Washburn is a former firefighter, professor and litigation attorney. Whether fighting fires in a building, a classroom, or the courtroom, he realized once he retired that 90% of his social life had revolved around work.
Washburn, 77, knew he needed to find a way to build a social network in retirement. Washburn also knew that he and his wife, Pam, 75, wanted to continue living independently in their own home.
He quickly learned that technology could play a vital role in accomplishing both goals.
Early members of The Village Chicago, a membership-based organization whose purpose is to connect and improve the quality of life of Chicagoans over 50, the Washburns now socialize through both in-person and Zoom events. And they rely on technology to maintain a safe environment at home.
The Washburns are part of a growing demographic. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050 more than 2 billion people will be 60 and older. The United States is also changing. According to Rodney Harrell, vice president of family, home and community for AARP, “In 2034, we will have more folks over 50 than under 18 for the first time.” Illinois, where 16.6% of folks are 65 and older, is no exception.
“A vast majority of folks want to stay in their home as they age,” Harrell said. And technology, increasingly, is making that possible, from touchless faucets to voice-controlled lights.
However, as Harrell points out, only 1% of homes have features that folks need to age in place.
Felice Eckhouse, founder of Elderspaces, a Chicago business that helps clients design and modify homes so that they can age in place, attributes this gap to designs that haven’t adapted much since World War II. “It’s a ying yang that’s out of whack. We need a space we’re not retrofitting before you can get to the gadgets,” Eckhouse said.
But Harrell sees potential for technology to bridge some of this gap. “What we (at AARP) focus on are the changes that can be made in the home regardless of medical conditions. Technology can’t do everything but plays an amazing role,” he said.
Even in the home, Eckhouse said, “The smartphone is the driver behind a lot of digital resources, from hearing aids to security systems, lighting systems, door entry, to appliances in the kitchen.”
Smartphones also offer basic help with everyday tasks and communication.
“I still use technology in all the normal ways. If I need to look up something, I look it up online,” Mel Washburn said. “I would have a severe case of boredom without my phone: news, books, calling people.”
His wife, Pam, who lives with multiple sclerosis, relies heavily on her smartphone as a daily communication tool.
Identifying tech solutions for folks who live in an ill-suited home may feel like a chicken-and-egg problem. This is because a lot of technology demands high-speed internet, which is not universal, notes Laurie Orlov, principal analyst for Aging and Health Technology Watch, an industry research firm.
Once internet service is place, however, Orlov said a vast range of options, such as voice-based technologies, motion-detecting 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 secretary pools, but he also experienced evolving technology over 28 years as a partner in a large law firm. Not everyone is as comfortable embracing new devices.
Orlov disputes the common misconception that baby boomers are more at ease with technology than their previous generation. Although they develop some comfort, baby boomers want to keep what they have, while the tech industry forces change. Phones are a prime example.
“Most people aren’t updating their phones as fast as the updates are coming,” Orlov said. Eventually, this leads to disabled, older devices, like phones that worked on 3G networks but no longer run on 5G. As a result, “Baby boomers will be just as frustrated (as the generation before),” she said.
No one-size-fits-all solution
Still, whether it’s free tablets through an Illinois Department of Aging program or using Zoom for The Village Chicago’s movie club, technology can support seniors aging in place in a number of different ways.
“Tech can be a potential great enhancer of the features in homes and address some of the gaps,” Harrell said. Tech doesn’t end with touchless faucets, activity monitors and voice-controlled lights to address low-vision issues and prevent falls. “There’s a burgeoning tech in sensors that understand behaviors, such as when someone has gotten out of bed,” Harrell said.
Even Alexa can be used for more than turning on lights, notes Jim Rosenthal, CEO of Caring.com, a free information resource for seniors and their families. “It can be taken much farther to cameras, microphones and the ability to see everything that’s going on to know that a parent is fine.”
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. These are simply another way technology can help seniors maintain healthy, independent lives.
Sorting through all of 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, offer critical information. For Illinois residents, the Illinois Department of Aging offers a senior help line (1-800-252-8966).
Amy Lulich, senior policy adviser at the Illinois Department of Aging, says, “This help line is not only where someone can get an assessment of what they might need to continue living in their home, but also learn what assistance they may be eligible to receive.”
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This might include Illinois Care Connections, which provides free iPads, tablets and Wi-Fi hot spots for qualifying individuals, through the Illinois Assistive Technology Program. The IATP also runs other programs and demonstrations of assisted technology. Because public programs like the assistive technology program may be restricted in who they can serve, the Illinois Senior Help Line is a useful starting point.
What works for one person may not work for another. In some cases, “technology isn’t always the best solution,” said Rosenthal, of Caring.com.
“The problem we face now,” according to Willie Gunther, IATP’s executive director, “is that seniors need to be educated on what’s possible and as soon as possible before it becomes an emergency.”