Using Technology to Improve Quality of Life for Seniors and Individuals with Disabilities

By: Sen. Susan M. Collins

The Pen Friend 2 is a remarkable new device to assist individuals with low vision.  People can use it to put stickers on different items and record voice labels, helping them to identify items like cans of soup or fruit more easily.  This was just one of the many innovative assistive tools featured at a recent Aging Committee hearing I chaired to examine how advances in technology are bridging the “care gap,” improving function in activities of daily living, helping to manage multiple chronic conditions, reducing the risk of hazards, and making homes safer for seniors. 


Survey after survey indicates that seniors envision themselves aging independently at home in their own community for as long as possible and living their lives to the fullest.  Technology can help make that possible.


With our aging population, the need for care and support is increasing.  In 2010, there were approximately seven potential caregivers for each person over 80.  By 2030, there will be four, and by 2050, the number drops to fewer than three.  So more people will have to rely on fewer caregivers – opening the door for technology to provide unprecedented assistance.


One particularly promising avenue for new technologies is in the prevention of falls.  Falls are a leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries among seniors and are projected to cost our nation $67 billion in the coming year alone.  Falls-related injuries can have a devastating impact, requiring round-the-clock institutional care.  But new technologies can reduce the risk of falls, as well as contact emergency services for help should a fall occur.  Developed by the University of Maine, smart glasses are a novel approach that detect edges, such as stairs or curbs to prevent falls, particularly for seniors who have limited mobility and eyesight.


Not only has technology helped seniors age in place, but it is also making it possible for individuals to move out of nursing homes or other institutionalized settings.  For example, Maine’s Homeward Bound program has used assistive tools to help transition more than 140 seniors and people with disabilities back to their own homes where they want to be, including an individual who had lived in a nursing home for 15 years.  Brenda Gallant, the Executive Director of the Maine Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, spoke at the Aging Committee hearing about another person, a 58-year-old woman diagnosed with muscular dystrophy who was able to regain her independence after residing in a nursing home for 17 months.


“She expressed her wish to leave the nursing home, but was discouraged by both the nursing home staff and her physician, who felt that her needs could not be met in the community. However, she was determined to be in her own apartment,” Ms. Gallant explained.  “A critical part of her planning was access to assistive technology. An assessment recommended an eye-gaze system that enables her to use her computer with her eyes to communicate through email and have access to the Internet, as well as remote access monitoring that provides motion detectors and notifies caregivers if her routine is not followed… Despite the initial skepticism regarding her ability to live independently, she has been successful in living on her own for the past six years.”


Another area where technology holds great potential is in reducing social isolation.  Social media and video chat on tablets and smartphones help to reduce social isolation and enrich seniors’ lives by keeping them connected to their loved ones.  Social isolation and loneliness can have serious, even deadly, consequences for the health and well-being of our nation’s seniors.  According to researchers, prolonged isolation is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  While not a substitute for people, technology can help to bring people together.


Older adults and people with disabilities have a role in the development of these technologies.  Including seniors and those with disabilities at the drawing board increases utilization and reduces stigma, and ultimately makes for a better product.


Technology is opening doors for older Americans and those with disabilities to live the way they prefer.  From better managing health and mobility to increasing connectivity and community activities, technologies on the market today and those on the horizon for tomorrow promise to usher in an era of aging.