I-Pods. Smart Cards. Broadband. Video Connectivity. These and other terms of technology were front and center Monday as the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Committee on Aging explored technology that can help aging residents remain independent in their own homes. National trends indicate that a “silver tsunami” is about to break – more than 75 million baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) will be reaching retirement age in the next 20 years. They are healthier, better educated, and more technologically savvy than previous generations, but the sheer numbers of people reaching retirement age will stress the service delivery systems already in place. That’s why technology offers such an exciting prospect.
Internet use is high for adults over 50, according to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Information access, training, and adaptive technology all are available through the Fairfax County Public Library and the Fairfax County Web site (www.fairfaxcounty.gov/seniors/). Among the items displayed on Monday were an I-Pod with a complete novel downloaded for listening, a computer device about the size of a book page that also had a novel downloaded so you could adjust the size of the type-face, and a magnifying gadget that could be adjusted to different color contrasts, depending on your visual acuity. The magnifier was interesting, although less so when I found out it retails for about $800! That brought home the reality that technology to help us age more gracefully and independently also may be very expensive, though perhaps not as expensive as a few months of nursing home care.
The Edgewood Terrace Project, the first “wired” affordable senior community in the nation, is located in Northeast Washington, D.C. A pilot project led by the non-profit Community Preservation and Development Corporation (CPDC) is using telehealth equipment to manage chronic disease. The volunteer participants do daily monitoring with equipment (e.g., taking blood pressure and transmitting the results over a phone line), and have weekly videophone visits with a nurse. These “virtual” visits are used to discuss a person’s health, review monitored data and trends, and provide disease management education. In the pilot, at least one resident cut her primary indicator of diabetic complications in half. Residents learn to take the stairs instead of the elevator, are more aware of what they eat, and when, and participate in their own care. Some have asked about continuing to use the equipment when the pilot program ends.
In California, some elderly clients can be monitored from afar by means of sensors installed in their homes. The sensors indicate if the stove was left on, and can turn it off. Sensors measure how many times the refrigerator door was opened, how long someone may be in the bathroom, and what room the person is in now. The sensors are read by computers, and a distant relative can check in at any time to see how the elderly person is doing. Sounds like Big Brother, you say? Caregivers admit that there are privacy and ethical issues involved in such a system, and aging parents or neighbors need to consent to the sharing of their information. Home health monitoring systems are in the very early stages, but Monday’s meeting gave policy makers a little peek at a possible future.