Op-Ed: Senior Tech Meets the Challenges of an Aging Society

Caregiving is committed to publishing a diversity of opinions. The opinions expressed in this op-ed article are the author’s own.

Americans are living longer today, with more than 54 million people age 65 and older. With a fast-aging population, how are we, as a society, helping to ensure that older adults have access to a high quality of life? As the executive director of a memory care community in the Chicago suburbs, I think about this question every day.

There’s a pressing need for services for seniors. The federal Administration for Community Living found the number of older Americans has increased by 36% since 2009, compared to a 3% increase for those under age 65.

In the past few years, a growing number of pioneers have forged an entire wave of innovation known as senior tech. These technology advancements have the power to help older adults navigate challenges associated with aging.

These developments matter: They are empowering people, enhancing quality of life, and unlocking opportunities to see, hear, recall, be active, and engage with loved ones. Innovations small and large help to mitigate the memory issues and declining senses that tend to wall us off from those closest to us as we age.

Addressing an aging population with senior tech

You do not have to look far to see how technology improves our daily lives. Young people fully embrace technological changes, but often we underestimate how older adults may respond to innovation. Those of us who regularly engage with older adults, especially those living with memory issues, know the value technology can bring to them.

It sometimes seems as if we have been treating the challenges of aging in the same manner we did decades ago. Today, we are at a critical juncture, and it is important for all Americans to reconsider how we manage an aging world.

The reasons why are staring us in the face. If we do not bring our best thinking to help an aging population thrive, we will deprive these individuals of a higher quality of life. We will also face unprecedented costs — to our healthcare system and to ourselves. The combined burdens of caring for an aging society could reduce America’s economic output by 17% by 2056, according to a 2019 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

I believe the economists’ dire prediction is too pessimistic. Instead, tech might be the answer to help older adults thrive.

There seem to be new innovations daily. Some may be costly, but many are not expensive. Other tools are not high tech at all but provide a novel approach for care or engagement. Even low-tech devices, like customizable motion detectors in residential units of memory care communities, add a layer of safety for residents and provide peace of mind for families.

Care communities can advocate for their residents, promoting the idea of a healthcare system that rewards the enhancement of a higher quality life, instead of merely medicating illnesses and decline.

Memory care communities can test new tools, technologies, and techniques that have shown promise in other settings. For instance, the Koelsch Innovation Lab — an initiative that tests new tools and techniques — has scoured the world for the strongest innovations aimed at addressing aging challenges, currently testing 14 technologies.

Senior tech initiatives 

Some exciting senior tech innovations include:

  • The S3 balance device, which makes it easier to stand independently and transfer from a wheelchair without fear of falling.
  • Zinnia TV, television programming that provides people living with dementia with soothing content on familiar topics to help them feel engaged and stay connected.
  • Eversound, a listening system with lightweight headsets that have noise-cancelling technology that enhances the ability to hear and focus, improving the lives of people who have disabling hearing loss. Better hearing has a profound impact on depression, balance, and the advance of dementias.

These and other initiatives are blazing a trail for individual caregivers, independent seniors, and others who recognize that transcending the inevitable physical, emotional, and mental challenges of aging may well be the most significant advancement in innovation in our lifetimes.

These innovations are proof that an emphasis on quality of life, instead of just fixing ailments, might be the linchpin to improving healthcare outcomes, saving billions of dollars, and — best of all — unlocking a happier and healthier old age for our loved ones and ourselves.