Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab, is fascinated by the intersection of technology and aging. As a keynote speaker at this year’s American Society on Aging conference, he challenged the audience to think about how evolving technology can not only improve health outcomes but can improve aging as a whole.
“The disruptive demographics of a new aging society is presenting a new generation gap,” he said. “This is a generation of new expectations when it comes to living longer.”
Technology is a cornerstone of how this generation views aging. However, don’t get taken in by “gee-whiz” gadgets that don’t enhance quality of life. “There’s a big difference between invention and true innovation.”
He pointed out several innovative products already available or in final development, like cars that can sense and adapt to a driver’s fatigue, voice-controlled wheelchairs that automatically take the user where he or she wants to go, and smarter, more connected homes “where fortunately or unfortunately, your toaster can talk to your toilet, your toilet can talk to your car, and your car can talk to the grocery store to place an order and fill up the fridge.” This type of proactive technology even extends to a mirror that can detect subtle health changes over time.
In the Winter 2014 issue of Public Policy and Aging Report, Coughlin wrote about a Pew Research survey which found “the newest is not always the most necessary; people were more likely to report needing the technologies that provided them with mobility and their creature comforts.”
Income disparities play a role in what is considered a necessity, particularly among older adults. For example, research showed that 43 percent of adults ages 65 and older with household incomes over $75,000 had smartphones, compared with 21 percent of those with incomes between $30,000 and $74,999 and 8 percent with incomes less than $30,000.
According to Pew, more than half of adults over 65 are now online, and 70 percent of that group say they use the Internet daily. More than 8 out of 10 (86 percent) use email daily and more than one-third (34 percent) are on social networking sites such as Facebook.
Additionally, Coughlin said, “a significant reason for their use is to connect with others – to check e-mail, to send messages, and to see what others, both grandchildren and old flames, have been up to.”
Coughlin cautioned policymakers that the very people who could most benefit from technology, from basic email to “smart” wheelchairs – the oldest, sickest, and homebound – are also the least likely to have it or be able to afford it.
More attention must be paid to income inequity among older Americans, as should removing barriers which help to connect people and alleviate social isolation. Otherwise, older adults who lack the means and materials will essentially be cut off.