How Technology Can Improve the Lives of Older Adults

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By Kelly Vencill Sanchez / Published by Dwell
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Joseph Coughlin, the founder and director of MIT’s AgeLab, shares his insights on aging in place.

What should we consider when creating homes for the long term?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab developed the Age Gain Now Empathy System (AGNES), a wearable device that enables the user to experience the diminished faculties and dexterity that can come with age.

Despite popular notions about people moving back to the city or the boom in senior housing, so far the vast majority of the baby boomers at the leading edge or the "Silent Generation" just ahead of them want to age in place. Their marriages, their mortgages, and their memories are in the homes they live in. For those who do want to move, they need homes that are for a lifetime, not a lifestyle. That means homes that are profoundly flexible, that are open and easy to negotiate, that optimize physical and emotional well-being, and that facilitate activities as well as visitors—not just family and friends but the home-care professionals who are going to be coming to your home as regularly as the mailman.

How can smart home technology support independence and healthy aging?

The technologies out there may replace the trips we’re no longer comfortable or capable of making and facilitate home delivery of that product. There are things like a smart refrigerator that can detect that your food is getting old or that you’re out of cream for your coffee, or even a smart medicine cabinet that many of us are working on that will facilitate the refill of your prescription before you have to call the doctor. It’s about making independent living easier and safer. And it’s about showing how changes in behavior and changes in well-being may predict a fatal event—and also incentivizing behaviors that make it possible for you to live longer, better.

You’ve written about the "transformative capacity" of technology to improve the lives of older adults. What innovations do you find most exciting right now?

Technology transforms our capacity to not just live longer but to live better across the life span. What’s exciting right now is the system of innovations that brings together the social, the rational, and the emotional to help older adults live well independently and also allows caregivers to manage their loved ones from a distance. It’s not about one specific app; these innovations come together to enable us to monitor and manage our well-being (food, medication, exercise) as well as to motivate. We’re earning badges and smiley faces and positive glows that tell us we took the stairs today and that we’ve been eating well. This includes the Fitbit and the smart scale. Medical alert systems can now detect changes in your gait and predict if you’re likely to trip and fall. We’re moving away from an alarm mentality to a proactive vitality.

How might products and technology aimed at young people improve the lives of older adults?

Arthur C. Clarke said it best: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." If you think about the technologies that young people use, it’s not so much that they’re better at it because they’re kids, it’s because they’ve known nothing else. Everything they pick up is a novelty, therefore everything they pick up is worth trying at least once. For older people, technology needs a higher value proposition. The big one for older adults is personalization. Using an iPad is no longer about how old you are and whether your eyes can see the font. With an iPad or a smart appliance, I can now change the font because I’m cool, not because I can’t see. 

Whether it’s a household appliance or a lighting system or a detection system, any technology that’s obviously designed for older adults is going to fail. It’s like the old adage: "You can sell a young man’s car to an old man, but you can’t sell an old man’s car to a young man"—let alone an old man’s house. A young man or a young woman won’t buy it. We have to start thinking about design attributes in the home, like staircases that are easier, not just for older people to navigate, but for people with kids, or safety applications for kids in the bathroom that also make it possible for an older adult not to slip in the middle of the night, or night lights that make a young mother feel more secure but also make it easier to find the bathroom at two in the morning. 

What’s on the boards at MIT’s AgeLab?

We believe that the house of the future should be looked at not just as an elegant structure in which to live well but also as an elegant platform to provide the services of the future. The appliances we buy for our homes and the design of those homes must remain profoundly adaptable to facilitate the service and home-care providers who will be coming in. Your house has to be designed for an adaptable, modular, open experience that allows for the change of technology every five years and the change in your well-being even sooner.

Joseph Coughlin is the founder and director of AgeLab, a research center dedicated to exploring quality of living for the elderly and those who care for them.