John W. Bateman Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO – Mel Washburne is a former firefighter, professor and litigator. Whether putting out fires in buildings, classrooms or courtrooms, he retired realizing that 90% of his social life 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 home.
He quickly learned that technology could play a vital role in achieving both goals.
An early member of The Village Chicago, a membership-based organization whose purpose is to connect and improve the quality of life for Chicagoans over the age of 50, Washburns now socialize through in-person and Zoom events. They rely on technology to maintain a safe environment at home.
The Washburns are part of a growing population. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050, there will be more than 2 billion people aged 60 and over. America is also changing. According to Rodney Harrell, vice president of families, families and communities for the AARP, “By 2034, there will be more people over 50 than under 18 for the first time.” 16.6% of Illinois people are under the age of 65 age and above, no exception.
“The vast majority of people want to stay home as they get older,” Harrell said. Technology is increasingly making this possible, from touchless faucets to voice-activated lights.
However, as Harrell points out, only 1% of homes have features that people need to age in place.
Felice Eckhouse, founder of Chicago-based firm Elderspaces, which helps clients design and remodel homes so they can age in place, attributes the gap to designs that haven’t adapted much since World War II. “It’s an abnormal yin and yang. We need a space that we’re not going to retrofit until you have these devices,” Eckhouse said.
But Harrell sees the potential for technology to bridge that gap. “What we (at AARP) is focused on is making changes at home regardless of medical conditions. Technology can’t do everything, but it can do amazing things,” he said.
Even at home, Eckhouse says, “smartphones are the driving force behind many digital resources, from hearing aids to security systems, lighting systems, access control, to appliances in the kitchen.”
Smartphones also provide basic assistance for daily tasks and communication.
“I still use technology in all the normal ways. If I need to look up something, I look it up online,” Merwashburn said. “Without my phone, I’d be very bored: news, books, calling people.”
His wife, Pam, suffers from multiple sclerosis, and she relies heavily on her smartphone as a daily communication tool.
Identifying technological solutions for people living in unsuitable homes can feel like a chicken-and-egg problem. That’s because many technologies require high-speed internet, which isn’t universal, said Laurie Orlov, principal analyst at industry research firm Aging and Health Technology Watch.
However, once internet service is in place, Orlov said, there are options available, such as voice-based technology, motion-detection cameras and sensors, “for predictive analytics to identify potential problems and make the world as safe as possible.”
But not everyone is tech-savvy.
Mel Washburn remembers tape recorders and pools of secretaries, but he also experienced 28 years of evolving technology as a partner at a large law firm. Not everyone likes receiving new equipment.
Orlov refutes the common misconception that baby boomers are more receptive to technology than previous generations. While they gain some comfort, baby boomers want to keep what they have, and the power of the tech industry is changing. The telephone is a good example.
“Most people don’t update their phones as fast as they can,” Orlov said. Ultimately, this leads to older devices that are disabled, such as phones that work on 3G networks but no longer work on 5G. As a result, “boomers will be just as depressed as the previous generation,” she said.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution
Still, technology can support seniors aging in place in a number of different ways, whether through a free tablet provided by the Illinois Department of Aging program or using Zoom for The Village Chicago’s movie club.
“Technology can greatly enhance home functionality and address some of the gaps,” says Harrell. Technology doesn’t end with touchless faucets, activity monitors and voice-activated lights to address low vision problems and prevent falls. “There’s an emerging technology in sensors that can understand behavior, such as when someone wakes up,” Harrell said.
Even Alexa can do more than just turn on lights, points out Jim Rosenthal, CEO of Caring.com, a free information resource for seniors and their families. “It can be taken further afield, like cameras, microphones, and the ability to see everything that’s going on to see if the parents are okay.”
Technology doesn’t have to be complicated either. Patricia Greenberg, owner of The Fitness Gourmet and author of Eat Healthy, Live Healthy, Live Long, says she loves apps like Noom and MyFitnessPal that help seniors track their personal nutrition and exercise habits. These are just another way technology can help seniors maintain healthy, independent lives.
Sorting through all the apps and technologies available can be dizzying, but organizations like Village Chicago can help. Resources such as AARP, Caring.com, and the Illinois Assistive Technology Program, which provides free information and technical assistance, provide key information. For Illinois residents, the Illinois Department of Aging offers an advanced helpline (1-800-252-8966).
Amy Lulich, senior policy advisor for the Illinois Department of Aging, said, “This helpline not only allows people to assess what they may need to continue living at home, but also what kind of help they may be eligible to receive. .”
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This may include Illinois Care Connections, which provides eligible individuals with free iPads, tablets and Wi-Fi hotspots through the Illinois Assistive Technology Program. IATP also runs other programs and assistive technology demonstrations. Because public programs like assistive technology programs can limit who they can serve, the Illinois Advanced Helpline is a useful place to start.
What works for one person may not work for another. Caring.com’s Rosenthal says that in some cases, “technology isn’t always the best solution.”
“The problem we’re facing right now,” according to IATP executive director Willie Gunther, “needs to educate older people about what is possible and as quickly as possible before it becomes an emergency.”