5 Ways Technology Will Change How We Age

5 Ways Technology Will Change How We Age

Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay

“For the next generation of retirees, the question that will trump all others will be a simple one: How do you add life to longer lives? The equally simple answer: technology.”
Dr. Joe Coughlin Director, MIT AgeLab

I see a lot written about the challenges we – in the West in particular – will face with our ageing populations.

If I was part of the ageing cohort who are no longer part of the workforce, I think I might be forgiven for thinking that society is starting to view me as a ‘burden’.

But we need to adjust our thinking. Older members of society are probably going to continue to be a valuable part of the engine driving our economies just as they were when working. As much as they will undoubtedly consume resources, we also need to consider the positive effects that consumption will have.

Founded in 1999, the MIT AgeLab was set up “to invent new ideas and creatively translate technologies into practical solutions that improve people’s health and enable them to “do things” throughout their lifespan.”

They suggest that everyone over the age of 45 should be thinking about these questions as they consider the impacts of getting older:

“Who will change my lightbulbs?”

“How will I get an ice-cream cone?”

“Who will I have lunch with?”

Research carried out in conjunction with Hartford Funds has identified five ways in which technology will be at the forefront of helping the elderly live longer, better. And from this, we can extrapolate how we might continue to view the elderly as valuable contributors to our economies.

  1. Staying on the job

The days of starting your working life at 16, 18, or in your early twenties, after completing a degree course, and hanging up your boots at 60 or 65 are gone.

When the State Pension was introduced in the UK in 1908 (payable at age 70), life expectancy at birth was age 40 for men and 43 for women. Only 24% of the population lived to collect their pension, and for those lucky few, their life expectancy at 70 was nine years (averaged for men and women).

By 2016/17 life expectancy at birth had increased to 84.1 for men and 86.9 for women. 85% now survived long enough to collect their pension, and life expectancy if you reached that point had increased to an average of 24 years.

With the best will in the world, that generation would really have struggled to churn out enough kids to provide a workforce paying sufficient taxes to support them in retirement.

Beyond the issues of not having been able to save enough for a retirement that might last forty years or procreating enough to make it affordable for the State to support them, spending such a significant portion of your life in retirement can cause problems for many beyond simply financial ones.

The challenge for today’s retirees can be as much about how to keep their brains sharp as funding a long retirement.

How technology helps 

Most obviously, the internet is a huge resource. From YouTube to podcasts, brain ‘workout’ sites such as Lumosity to the 140+ universities providing free online courses, it’s never been easier to learn a new skill in retirement or keep your brain active. Or become a successful vlogger proving that life doesn’t end in your 60s.

70% of us now intend to work beyond age 75. While some will simply stay longer in their jobs, many retirees now form part of the ‘gig economy’ (and as a result will continue to contribute to society by paying taxes).

Uber. 24% of Uber drivers are over 50. They are more likely to have the flexible schedule to be a driver.  It’s a great way to get out of the house and meet a wide range of different people. What’s more, retirees get the highest ratings by users.

Airbnb.  Over half of hosts are over 40. 10% are over 60. Imagine the benefits for a retiree living alone of opening your home to worldwide travellers. A great way to stay connected with the world. And earn a few quid.

  1. Staying connected

Studies show that older people who are technologically ‘connected’ are the happiest and the healthiest.

The mortality rate for suffering a broken hip after age 70?  70-80% after one year. The biggest cause of that mortality? Separation and isolation.  What tends to happen is that after being discharged from hospital you’ll have plenty of visitors, to begin with. Then they stop. Your mobility has reduced, making it harder to get out and maintain your social network.

Men are particularly at risk of isolation. Partly because women may well have formed a strong social network when their kids were young, whereas for many men not only might their lives have revolved around their work, but also because women seem naturally better at maintaining those networks (who writes the Christmas cards in your house?).

How technology helps 

Skype, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp. Four ways in which it has become easier for the elderly to stay connected to their friends and families. When I think back to my childhood when my grandparents emigrated to Australia, the most we (and they) had to look forward to was the occasional airmail letter, cassette tapes we would record and post to each other once a year, and – very, very rarely due to the cost – a phone call. Contrast that to today. No matter where in the world your family lives, it’s never been easier to stay connected and combat feelings of isolation.

We tend to assume that resources like these are dominated by the young and, for now, they are. Those aged 65 and over may currently be the lowest users of social media, but they are also the fastest-growing sector of users.

They also have the most time to spend on social media, and it’s in this age group that the wealth resides.

Businesses marketing to this group of users have huge opportunities to grow by catering to them on social media.

  1. Staying mobile 

Once upon a time, not being able to drive or struggling to use public transport could mean a life of isolation and loneliness for older people. Not anymore.

How technology helps 

Uber, Lyft, Blue Apron, online grocery shopping, Just Eats, Deliveroo. It seems odd to me that TV advertising for meal delivery services always features a group of twenty-somethings when surely the bigger market for their services is older people who are not as mobile as they used to be?  The perception of ride services appealing most to younger people is also probably a slight misconception.

All of these services help older people with travelling around their local area, shopping and prepping meals. Once again, follow the money. The bigger target market for these services in the long term could easily be the elderly rather than the young.

  1. Staying in your home

I think the number one fear regarding ageing is probably having to go into full-time care. It’s only natural that we should want to stay in our homes as long as possible.

How technology helps 

Websites such as Task Rabbit provide a trusted resource in finding someone to carry out ‘odd jobs’ from assembling flat pack furniture to cleaning and gardening. If you are in the business of providing services such as these, you should be marketing to older people and not just ‘time poor’ young professionals.

Alexa will handle a lot of your online shopping, play you music and even read your Kindle books to you.

Roomba will do your hoovering!

  1. Staying healthy 

We now possess a vast array of healthcare tools, right in our mobile devices. Managing medical issues has never been easier.

How technology helps 

Businesses like Helping Hands enable you to book visits online as and when you need them, providing everything from basic ‘home help’ to nurse-led services. With social services unable to cope with demand in most developed economies, services like these are becoming vital to the healthcare of our elderly.

Apps like Pillboxie will remind you when you need to take your medication. The Apple Watch can monitor your heart as well as having fall detection and emergency SOS. It’s even been credited with saving lives.

An ageing population supported by a shrinking younger population is always going to create problems. But those problems aren’t necessarily insurmountable as Japan is discovering.

Rather than obsessing over the threats, perhaps we could focus on the opportunities? We are living longer – that’s brilliant. Technology is providing the means for us to live well for longer (and we’re never going to stop innovating) and provides massive growth opportunities for businesses providing services and technology aimed at making our lives easier.

Let’s celebrate that.

“Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese.”
Luis Bunuel, filmmaker