According to US census data, about every fourth adult over the age of 65 lives alone.1 Living alone can be liberating, but also socially isolating, which can have a negative impact on your health. While various devices have made it easier for people of old to stay in their homes, technology is generally not used to engage them in social activities or to stay in touch with their communities.
Consider it: People living in Loma Linda, California – a small town outside of Los Angeles – live an average of 10 years longer than other Americans.2 Loma Linda is one of five "blue zones" identified by author and researcher Dan Buettner as communities around the world where people live longer, healthier and happier lives. Although diet, exercise and the environment affect the health of people in these areas, older people also participate in social activities and are usually strongly related to their community.
What if our existing health care system developed into a system that focuses on the well-being of older adults by keeping them in touch with their communities? Could such a change bring the average health span (ie the number of years people remain healthy) closer to average life expectancy? To understand something the future of aging The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions recently spoke to 30 people who are experts in aging services, politics, innovation and technology.
Can technology improve human connections?
Technologies such as video surveillance, voice-activated digital assistants, and portable devices that detect falls enable relatives and caregivers to remotely monitor older adults in their homes. At the same time, virtual health can allow older adults to meet with doctors without stepping outside. However, this convenience can sometimes make patients feel disconnected as humans. The adoption of this technology was largely driven by a two-value offer. It provides care for the caregivers and helps older adults to feel less stressful for their relatives. Although this is a powerful lever, it seems to have reached appreciable limits to widespread testing and, more importantly, continued use.
But can the technology that improves surveillance and remote clinics help older adults to connect with their communities and sense out-of-home goals without reminding them that they are aging, sick, or frail? Solving this problem could redefine the barriers to adoption while opening the door to addressing social isolation and broader social determinants of health.
A wired home is just part of the solution
Whether elderly people can stay at home when they can no longer self-care depends in many cases on the care of family and friends. According to a report by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), more than 34 million adults have cared for a family member over 50.3 With the number of over-65s expected to double to 70 million by 2030, the burden on caregivers is likely to increase only if we consider how we can expand their supply capacity.
For example, the technology could help older adults find and connect to the services they need. For example, the gig-economy and self-service tools could allow older adults to build new connections with other people – young and old alike. Older adults who are digitally connected could help challenge perceptions retirement, Digital tools could also help to identify previously overlooked risk factors associated with social determinants of health.
Some organizations keep older adults in contact
Health plans, health systems, medical device manufacturers, and physicians should consider how technologies can be used to meet the specific needs of an aging population. For example, older adults may not know what resources and social services are available in the community and how to connect to them. Here is an overview of three community-based and start-up organizations trying to keep older adults connected with caregivers, family members, and their communities:
- Heal: Created by a group of graduates and students from Johns Hopkins University, this startup provides a search feature that connects older adults with community organizations, social services and government services.
- Element3 Health: The GroupWorks platform connects individuals with their social leisure interests – from arts and crafts to outdoor sports.4 Medicare Advantage plans can leverage GroupWorks to engage their members in more physical and social activities to potentially improve their health and increase satisfaction. While this tool is aimed at older adults today, broadening the focus on younger consumers in the future could help delay or prevent the onset of conditions caused by social isolation and loneliness.
- Minkas Including communities with multiple skills and generations (MAGIC): These small and manageable modular homes help older adults to stay independent. A Minka house can be a private residence located in a backyard of another residence located in small residential neighborhoods, or it can be part of a village of modular homes. The MAGIC model aims to reduce social isolation and to foster intergenerational interaction.5
Can we humanize technology?
We envision a future where technology solves many of our health and wellbeing problems. But will the spread of technology make us crave for more human connections? Health plans, healthcare systems, medical device manufacturers, clinicians, and caregivers should consider how to best use technology to promote health and well-being. If technology can help us preserve our independence as we get older, it can also make sure that the connection with our friends, families and communities is not interrupted.
1Population 65 years and over in the United States: 2016, United States Census Bureau, October 2018
2The blue zones: 9 lessons for a longer life from the people who lived the longest, Dan Buettner, 2012
3Care in the US 2015, AARP Public Policy Institute, June 2015
4Element 3 Health, Healthcare Innovator fights social isolation and loneliness with a fast-growing network of clubs, February 21, 2019.
5Bill Thomas believes that modular homes are a solution to the challenge of the midmarket, Senior Living Innovation Forum, March 13, 2019.
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