Can technology transform aging in America? It’s a compelling question, and in fact I recently participated in a panel discussion with that very title. The panel, hosted by Politico, discussed community-based care and technological innovations to help older adults age in their own homes and communities.
Technology, of course, is ingrained in every aspect of our society. While technology can produce benefits that improve the quality of life of older adults and support family caregivers, there are still barriers and challenges to overcome in order to fully realize its potential. It is a fact that older adults generally want to remain independent and active as they age. It is also true, as a recent report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine pointed out, that there is growing evidence that technology can effectively help caregivers, in addition to older consumers themselves.
One cannot deny that we are in the midst of a technological revolution. The pace of technological innovation has accelerated to meet the growing health needs of older adults and support the family caregivers who are providing care and support. Demographics coupled with a strong desire to develop products and services that could keep down rising health care cost are just some of the drivers. Some 10,000 boomers will turn 65 each day for the next 10 years. By 2030, the number of Americans 65 and older will have nearly doubled to 72 million. These demographic changes are occurring as we see a shrinking pool of available family caregivers. Technology, therefore, holds the potential to both help address the gap given this shrinking pool as well as assist caregivers in their roles.
This convergence of an aging population and a decreasing pool of family caregivers could present a huge market opportunity. According to a newly released AARP report, the 50-plus population already generates $7.6 trillion in economic activity, including $5 trillion in consumer spending. Also, the total economic value of caregivers’ contributions was estimated at $470 billion annually, surpassing total Medicaid spending ($449 billion), and nearly equaled the annual sales ($469 billion) of the four largest U.S. tech companies combined (Apple, Hewlett Packard, IBM and Microsoft) in 2013. No longer can society afford to conduct business as usual. No longer can entrepreneurs and investors ignore this huge market opportunity.
So what are some of the benefits and challenges for consumers, government and industry?
Health-related technologies have the potential to empower older adults to better manage their chronic conditions, reduce social isolation and depression by enabling older adults to remain connected to family and friends (especially those who are distant), and promote physical activity. The use of health care technologies can facilitate increased interaction between people and health professionals. Already, people have greater access to their health information than ever before. We are seeing a range of innovative technologies to help older adults age in their homes and communities, including fall monitoring systems, home-based activity monitoring to address cognitive impairments, and voice recognition or voice command technologies.
Needless to say, certain challenges stand in the way of tapping the massive potential. For starters, the marketplace for these various technologies can be highly confusing for anyone to navigate. People need help understanding the various technological solutions, how these solutions help to address their unique needs for care and support, and how to discern the difference in what might appear to be similar products. As a result, it can be problematic for older adults and their family caregivers to learn new technologies, interpret results, and troubleshoot when something goes wrong.
Connectivity issues also present challenges. According to an AARP Public Policy report, millions of older adults do not have access to or cannot afford high-speed internet access at home. The United States lags behind more than a dozen countries in developing the infrastructure for broadband service adoption and network speed. As a result, millions of older adults lack an important platform to keep pace with the rapid changes in the health care delivery system and maintain optimal health. Many rural areas do not have broadband connection that is reliable and affordable.
As the Bipartisan Policy Center report pointed out, cost and lack of options to pay for technologies on a fixed income are also significant barriers to scaling technological innovations that support aging in the community and optimal health. Moreover, concern over privacy and security of sensitive health information continues to be an issue. The frequency of media stories on data breaches and email hackings just heightens these concerns.
Still, in spite of the challenges, consumers want technologies that will empower them to make informed decisions and allow them to manage their health and well-being so they can live independent, active and meaningful lives. Technology solutions must meet certain criteria in order to be effective: They must make sense to consumers, they must be affordable, and they should be designed for comfort and ease of use.
So can technology transform aging in America? Yes, of course it can — it’s already transforming all aspects of society. But while momentum is building for widespread adoption of various technologies, more work is needed to address barriers to adoption, particularly among the older adult population. All levels of government, the nonprofit space and the private sector have a role to play in removing barriers that prevent the widespread adoption of increasing important health technologies.
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Jean Accius is vice president of livable communities and long-term services and supports for the AARP Public Policy Institute. He works on Medicaid and long-term care issues.