Aging and Technology: New Report Offers Tech-Based Solutions for Global Challenges

As the majority of the world’s population advances in age, today’s technology is advancing rapidly too—powering greater interconnectivity and innovative solutions for the challenges this shifting demographic presents. That’s the core of IBM’s new report on aging and technology, Outthink Aging—created in partnership with the Consumer Technology Association Foundation—which presents recommendations in three core areas “where the intersection of mobile devices and cognitive computing could have the greatest impact on seniors, including their families and caregivers.”

Nicola Palmarini, Global Technology Advocate for IBM’s Aging Initiative (part of their Accessibility Research Division), walks us through the report:

1. Why Is Aging Such a Challenge?

While the statistics have pointed to the so-called “silver tsunami” for years, and experts have long heralded its coming, Palmarini believes the report expresses a sense of urgency, a wake-up call. “We have to remind people that there is an issue: the world is aging,” he says.

Cultural experience plays a part. Technology can support individuals and families, but one’s culture will influence the way it is applied. What does aging look like in Nevada versus New Mexico, or in Canada versus Germany, Palmarini asks? “In Japan, they’re focused on aging gracefully. In Brazil, they’re focused on aging beautifully.”

One of aging’s greatest challenges? According to the report, 35 percent of respondents believe discussing assisted/long-term care is the most difficult conversation to have with their parents. “We could envision that being so, but we were still surprised to see it in black and white,” says Palmarini.

While Palmarini is passionate about technology’s potential to ease the burdens of aging and caregiving, he’s realistic too. “There is no single solution,” he says.

2. How Can We Generate New Ideas?

Amidst the challenges of an aging world reside tremendous opportunities, opportunities which are not limited by age. As such, Outthink Aging calls upon leaders and visionaries from all generations, basing many of its foundational outcomes on interactions with millennials. “Generations should care,” says Palmarini. “How do the brilliant young minds of a generation born with technology see solutions for today’s aging society?”

To find the answers, the Outthink Aging team partnered with the IXL Center for Innovation and Excellence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to a program called the “Innovation Olympics” — which “challenges university and business school student teams to leverage their knowledge and skills to solve a real innovation and growth issue.”

As the report’s recommendations emerged, connectivity, or what Palmarini calls an “interconnected ecosystem,” was a clear priority. An exciting development on the connectivity front? Adding a cognitive computing layer to big data is huge, says Palmarini. Such an expansion allows innovators a window into how patterns are evolving, and how profiles and behaviors relate to events captured by sensors (such as those used in wearable technology and smart homes). “It’s a perfect storm that benefits all… linking technology to a unique point of access and seeking common touch points to deliver the right information at the right time.”

3. What Are the Key Findings/Recommendations for Aging and Technology?

Provide knowledge as a service, create a cognitively powered community, and protect older adults from financial fraud: These three recommendations form the final components of theOutthink Aging report, and there are tech-based tactics for accomplishing each of these goals.

But in Palmarini’s utopian view of an aging society (tangibly demonstrated in the report), there are actually four dimensions of wellness for aging adults—and they go beyond the basic activities of daily living (ADLs):

  1. Health: Do we have access to high quality healthcare and services? Are we aging actively? Are we mobile?
  2. Connection: Palmarini references the new catch phrase “loneliness is the new smoking” as evidence of the great need for connectivity among older adults. “Social spaces must shift to the digital era,” he says, and individuals must be able to access tech as a means of working longer, aging in place for as long as possible, and staying in touch with family, friends, and colleagues.
  3. Security: Identity theft is rampant; financial abuse is on the rise. Safety at home is paramount, and access to emergency services are a must-have.
  4. Dignity and Independence: Palmarini calls these “the good ol’ words” of aging, because they represent the things which will always be important to everyone as they age. And to best accomplish these universal ideals through tech—i.e. balancing the need for support vs. a desire for privacy, or achieving the goal of autonomy and self-direction—we need to better explain why and how the tech will help.

Technology can never replace the work of caregivers, but harnessing its power for the good of caregivers—and those in need of care—is a worthy undertaking.

What’s happening state-side related to aging and technology? Read about a new report on the future of family caregiving.

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