When something is personal, it can be hard to see the bigger picture beyond the immediate personal or intimate challenges. It’s never easy to place a deeply personal issue within a broader context of macrotrends or demographic and generational shifts around us.
Aging—and especially ensuring quality of life in later years—is an example. We can’t extract ourselves from the simple fact that we will all grow old.
And yet, the experience of aging is changing, and three things are coming sharply into focus: the global impact of an aging population and a shifting societal approach to the aging community; changing demands in care for the elderly; and technology’s role in enabling an empowered and dignified later life. Looking at these shifts through a technological lens and with a collaborative mindset, we can see the bigger picture of how some societies are approaching getting older—and adapting as a result.
Shifts in Growing Old
It’s important to recognize that the demographics of “the aged” are changing. The average global life expectancy has risen steadily, and there’s a change in the social conditions and disease types that contribute to the death rate. The details aren’t critical here; what we know is that these changes are impacting how older people experience their lives. People are growing older, but with different health issues—all of which need to be managed.
Another point to look at is the increasingly important role of informal care—that is, care that is provided in a nonprofessional capacity—in how society looks after those in the later years of their lives. Informal care is largely provided by those already aged 50 and older, many of whom will need care themselves in the near future. This “squeezed generation” is becoming a significant issue.
Increasingly, we will see government and health services picking up the responsibility unless alternative options are put in place. In the United Kingdom, figures show informal care is valued at about $77 billion; in the United States, it sits at $470 billion per year, according to 2013 data. These figures demonstrate the incredible scale of informal care. To allay this pressure, we need to consider technology and collaboration as well as a collective change in how we approach aging.
A Grown-Up Approach
In the area of connected health care, technology is finally catching up to a need that has existed for generations, enabling health care to be delivered seamlessly and holistically across multiple settings.
One example of this is remote patient monitoring (RPM). Three key factors are contributing to the expanded use of remote monitoring technology for elder care from a distance—allowing seniors to age where they choose, for their vital signs to be shared with health practitioners via connected devices, and for families and informal carers to feel some relief from daily care. These are:
- the reduction in price (and size) of smart health tech hardware, such as smartphones and wearable health metric trackers;
- the breadth of connectivity, soon to become even more ubiquitous thanks to the race to fifth-generation technology (or 5G) in global telecommunications; and
- advances in the ability of artificial intelligence and data analytics to identify patterns and insights for the individual and for wider population groups.
I don’t mean to suggest that the aging population should be forced to fit around technology and the lifestyle changes that it inevitably introduces. Rather, technology should be designed so that the changes will work for the user.
Positively, technology is no longer an innovation being imposed onto an aging population. As we’ve seen from the “silver surfers,” older generations are eager to adopt and use new advances in devices. In the United Kingdom, a quarter of people 75 and older use tablets and four in 10 use social media regularly, according to the country’s telecommunications regulatory body.
Technologies like remote monitoring and telehealth make it easier for medical professionals to do patient checkups via video call, to monitor for movement or falls via motion sensors, and to assist those with conditions such as dementia via reminders and prompts—all of which can help the aging navigate their lives with a greater degree of independence than ever before.
The capabilities of technology such as RPM mark a shift from dependence on caregivers. While it won’t be possible for everyone, where it is an option, this practical concept will offer greater independence and quality of life to an aging population. This is especially important for those who give and receive spousal or family care—relieving immense pressure that care obligations for aging family members can create and helping return some normality to the household.
Artificial intelligence-based, internet-enabled monitors, sensors and other technologies can share real-time, actionable health data with clinicians remotely so they can stage interventions sooner and save time for quality human interaction when needed. The insights from this data can then be shared across health networks, enabling better public health policy setting and resource allocation.
AARP reports that nearly 90% of people over age 65 want to stay in their homes for as long as possible. These tech-based services are helping families, caregivers, doctors and specialists better monitor elderly patients from afar in a personalized and noninvasive way, so they can remain independent for longer.
If businesses, governments and health care providers are to harness the passion of communities to care for and enhance the lives of the elderly, then there is a clear role that technology needs to play. The integration of technology, multiple stakeholder groups and government gives the elderly a platform to be heard and helps effectively manage the risks and costs of elderly care to maintain population health.
A Collaborative Approach
Looking ahead, the greater use of technology to connect the elderly with practitioners and loved ones, better collaboration among all stakeholders engaged in elderly care, and consideration for the new demands of the aging community themselves can help us move away from pigeonholing the elderly as a burden on society, while delivering more efficient care. Many countries are already making huge strides in these areas, such as Canada, Japan and Singapore.
While aging continues to be a deeply personal topic, its implications are of the highest magnitude to the whole of society across the world. I cannot think of a more powerful reason for businesses, communities and governments to come together to ensure aging populations are cared for.