It comes to no surprise that survey after survey indicates that most seniors would much rather stay in their own homes and communities to “age in place” and live independently as long as possible. Many seniors are far happier and much more comfortable in their own homes and near friends, family, and loved ones.
While the population of seniors in our nation is increasing significantly, the number of both professional and family caregivers that can help care for seniors to enable them to age in place is decreasing. According to Census Bureau projections, 21 percent of the American population will be 65 and older by 2040, up from just under 14 percent in 2012. In fact, every day, 10,000 baby boomers turn sixty-five. Americans 85 and older are the fastest growing segment of our population. And this is the very population that is most at risk of multiple and interacting health problems that can lead to disability and need for long-term care.
Today, there are seven caregivers for each person over 80 and at the highest risk of requiring long-term care. By 2030, there will be four, and by 2050, the number drops to fewer than three. As a result, in the future, more people will have to rely on fewer caregivers.
Advances in technology may provide some solutions to these challenges.
Many are familiar with the decades-old and well-known phrase, “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up.” That phrase, of course, was an advertisement for a medical alert system that, for many years, was among the most advanced technologies available to help seniors stay in their homes. While many seniors still rely on this device, breakthroughs in modern technology have brought us a long, long way, providing new options for seniors and their families. Technological solutions can be cost-effective and tailored to meet the specific needs of a senior and his or her living situation. Companies that develop these technologies are starting to recognize the needs of seniors, and design products to meet these needs.
It is very exciting that some important work related to research and development of technologies to help seniors age in place is taking place right here in Maine at the University of Maine’s Center on Aging.
The Senate Special Committee on Aging, which I chair, recently held a hearing to examine how advances in technology can help seniors live independently and age in place. Dr. Carol Kim, Vice President for Research at the University of Maine, came to Washington to testify about UMaine’s “Successful Aging Initiative for Living,” or SAIL, program.
Dr. Kim knows all too well that Maine is the oldest state in the nation by median age. UMaine has done a great deal of work that would help seniors mitigate falls and lessen the impact of a fall. Falls are a leading cause of injury-related death among seniors, and a major reason why many seniors become unable to live independently.
For example, the University is working to develop a clothing garment that would provide hip protection to help prevent a fracture upon a fall. The University is also working to develop “non-stigmatized” protective head gear that has the appearance of a regular head band or baseball cap.
Dr. Kim further described UMaine’s work to develop a device that could be mounted on an individual’s glasses to help detect edges, such as stairs or curbs, or benches that could create falling hazards. This technology would be particularly helpful to seniors who have limited mobility and eyesight challenges.
To illustrate the great need for development of innovative devices, UMaine students visited with residents of an assisted living facility in Orono and ask them this question: “What could we design that would help you in your daily lives?” In just one hour, these seniors came up with 50 different ideas!
Advances in technology now provide options to allow seniors to remain in their homes longer by monitoring their health status, detecting emergency situations, and notifying families and health care providers of potential changes in health status. Another witness at the Aging Committee’s recent hearing, a caregiver, described how sensors helped both his mother and mother-in-law remain in their homes longer than they otherwise would have. A sensor on the refrigerator, for example, helped alert him to the fact that his mother-in-law, who suffers from dementia, was not eating.
In addition to the peace of mind technology can provide, it can also save money. This caregiver believes that the technology that enabled his mother to stay in her home ultimately saved his family more than $300,000 by not having to move her into a nursing home.
While it isn’t a replacement for professional care or personal attention from family members, technology can help bridge the “care gap” and extend the amount of time a person is able to live independently—to help them age and thrive in place.