Technology uses scientific knowledge for practical purposes and over the last century, innovators have harnessed it to change the way we live. Did you ever think there would be a robot caregiver or a self-driving car? How about a 3D printer that can make a heart valve or wearable technology that can locate you if you’re lost in the woods? If that sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, think again. The future, it seems, is now.
Since the beginning of human existence, we have been finding ways to make our lives easier. It didn’t take our ancestors long to discover the controlled use of fire and put it to good use. The wheel and axle took us from wagons to automobiles, and getting from one place to another got a whole lot easier. From the first radio signal to mobile devices, advances in technology have dramatically changed the way we communicate with each other. Worldwide, both industry and government are betting that technology can change the way we age for the better.
A relatively new inter-disciplinary field of research is dedicated to helping seniors age well. Gerontechnology is a combination of gerontology (the scientific study of aging) and technology. The basic principle is how to match assistive technology with the needs of older adults who want to remain independent, safeguarding their well-being and improving their quality of life. The research from this new academic and professional field impacts stakeholders in the business of aging, including healthcare companies, manufacturers, builders, engineers and even seniors themselves and their caregivers.
Across the globe, governments are developing national strategies on how to deal with aging populations, which are expected to nearly double by the year 2050. Because we are living longer, the rates of chronic disease, including arthritis, high blood pressure and dementia, are on the rise. With a predicted shortage of both caregivers and nursing homes, Japan for example, is taking the concept of assistive technology to a whole new level.
Japan’s health ministry has invested in the development of carebots, which are robots designed to help seniors maintain their autonomy and able to serve as well in healthcare settings. Robobear (which indeed looks like a bear) can lift and transfer someone from a chair to the bed and Asimo from Honda can help seniors with everyday tasks like getting food from the fridge and turning off the lights. And while the mainstream use of carebots is still years away and not without controversy (robots can never replace the value of human interaction), you might very well be greeted at the door by a companion robot one day.
Robotic technology can also help older adults who have difficulty walking due to weakened leg muscles. Honda’s Stride Management Assist is a wearable leg brace with a motor that helps lift each leg at the thigh as it moves forward and backward. It weighs about six pounds and can adjust to your stride and monitor your heart rate. Still in the research phase on this side of the pond, assistive walking technology is being tested at some rehabilitation hospitals in North America.
Closer to home, some of the more popular gerontechnology trends include medication dispensers that can alert caregivers if a dose has been missed and home monitoring systems that include sensors which can notify a family member via a text message if Mom opens the door at night or is out of bed for a long period of time. An electronic stabilizing handle called Liftware can even help people with hand tremors eat more easily.
Wearable technology can help keep older adults safe at home and now, on the go. Fall detection buttons with built in sensors designed to detect a fall have been available for several years. New to the market, however, are mobile help buttons with GPS locating technology. Victoria Lifeline will soon be introducing Lifeline with GoSafe to the Winnipeg market.
Recognizing that older adults today lead active lives and need a personal emergency response system that goes where they do, the GoSafe button includes six locating technologies, fall detection and two-way voice communication so the subscriber can talk to the response centre from wherever they need help. The button easily transitions from inside your home to outside, and even has an audio beacon that can be activated if you fall outside and cannot easily be seen by emergency personel.
Another key component of aging well is staying connected to both your family and the community you live in. Social isolation and loneliness can pose a health risk, and a recent study revealed that older adults with strong social relationships have a lower mortality rate. This is where technology can really make an immediate impact. Video chatting through Skype and FaceTime can help you stay connected to your children and grandchildren who have moved away. Community groups on social media sites like Facebook can keep you up to date on neighborhood issues and events.
And if you have an iPad or a tablet, there are plenty of apps geared toward older adults that can remind you to take your medication, keep track of your blood pressure and fitness programs to get you moving! For fun, there is even an old-time radio app which features radio shows from the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties. So if you’re not well-acquainted with apps (small, specialized programs downloaded onto your mobile device or tablet), it may be time to invite your favorite teenager over for dinner and let her or him introduce you.
If you are willing to embrace technology, there is a brave new world out there waiting for you.
Krystal Simpson is a communications officer with Victoria Lifeline, a community service of the Victoria General Hospital Foundation