The Limits of Technology to Improve the Lives of America's Elderly

The Limits of Technology to Improve the Lives of America's Elderly
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One of the hottest areas of tech is developing products aimed at America's elderly. Understanding the attraction of this market is a no-brainer: In just over a decade twenty percent of America's population will be 65 and over. That's a pretty sizeable market to target, particularly given that as people age they require various forms of assistance with their day-to-day living.

But it's dangerous and naïve to look to technology to manage or solve all the elderly's day-today living challenges. Take drones for instance. Dr. Naira Hovakimyan, a University of Illinois roboticist, has received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to explore the development of autonomous drones to help the elderly with simple household chores, like retrieving a bottle of medicine from the other room. Hovakimyan told New York Times reporter John Markoff that drones will be a critical component of elder care within the next two decades.

Perhaps I'm mistaken, but if autonomous drones could be developed and sold at affordable prices, my guess is the market for them would be far bigger than just the elderly. There are millions of NFL sports fans I expect would embrace a product that could fetch them a beer without having to get out of their recliners on a Sunday. And at first blush, an autonomous drone seems like a major innovation to help keep America's elderly in their homes, but I fear the ultimate ramifications of such products.

One of the biggest threats to the well being of the elderly is isolation. The threat was best articulated in an advertisement for Toronto's Baycrest Hospital (formerly known as the Toronto Jewish Old Folks Home) which featured an elderly person sitting alone with this caption: Old Age Won't Kill Him. Loneliness Will. Creating a world where the elderly are dependent on drones and robots for their day-today survival quite possibly will increase their isolation and depression.

Admittedly I'm biased because I'm CEO and founder of CareLinx, the nation's leading online home care company, but I'm confident in saying that technology will never be able to replace the value of a human caregiver. What makes caregivers so exceptionable are not just their skills to help the elderly perform their day-to-day functions, but their typical warmth and human engagement. The bond that forms between caregiver and client is often incredibly strong, and the human interaction is as important to an elder person as the living assistance.

Given that my company is headquartered in Silicon Valley, I appreciate how technology can help address some of the challenges of the elderly, but sound government policy should also be focused on tackling the inevitable shortage of professional caregivers that is developing as baby boomers age. Caregivers are among the most exploited workers in America, and the government must be more zealous about enforcing laws that prevent them from being employed as "outside contractors" so that companies can avoid paying their taxes.

Public funds also should be earmarked to support non-profit organizations such as The Village to Village Network (VtV), whose mission simply is to help seniors to help themselves so that they can remain longer in their homes. The "village" concept is a non-profit organization funded by the area's elderly residents that provides concierge-type services such as transportation, health and wellness programs, home repairs, social and educational activities. There are now more than 160 villages nationwide.

Technology can play a major role in helping keep America's elderly in their homes, but ultimately it will take human interaction and support to allow them to experience meaningful lives.

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