“We’re living longer – and healthier – than our predecessors, because of advancements in nutrition, medicine, public health, and sanitation during the last century. And now, thanks to innovation in technology, we’re transforming growing older into a more vibrant period of life that’s about living better as much as it is about living longer.”
– Dr. Joe Coughlin, Director of the MIT AgeLab
The AgeLab was established at MIT in 1999 as a multidisciplinary research program that works with businesses to improve the quality of life of older people and those who care for them. The AgeLab applies consumer-centered thinking to understand the challenges and opportunities of longevity and emerging generational lifestyles to encourage innovation across business markets. Their insights are critical to anyone who is nearing retirement, or who has loved ones such as parents, aunts, or uncles who are entering this stage of life. This article in our series discusses the “Navigating Longevity” phase and explores the difficulty of keeping up with “Administrivia” as you grow older.
The “Navigating Longevity” Phase
As we discussed in our last article, the folks at the MIT AgeLab have proposed a new name for the “retirement years,” the stage of life that begins roughly at age 66 and extends for 25 or more years through the end of life. According to the AgeLab, these years should be named the “Exploring” phase of our lives, as opposed to “retirement.”
In their model for aging, the AgeLab also suggests that there are four distinct phases that people experience as they live through their “Exploring” years. The first of these is the “Honeymoon” phase, named because it marks the period of time when this whole idea of exploring our freedom is brand new to us. But, there are also a number of adjustments that must be made as we acclimate to the changes in our lives.
The second stage is called the “Big Decision” stage because this is a time when we are faced with a number of very important decisions that may have impact on our quality of life for the rest of our lives, and in particular, decisions about where we will live.
The next stage is known as “Managing Longevity.” This is a period of time when managing the complexities of life may become more challenging. The daily details of life, or “Administrivia,” begin to increase, as healthcare, financial, legal, and household logistics begin to become more complex, and cognitive changes may make it more difficult to keep up with these details. Below, we focus on the role of technology in this phase.
Technology and Aging
It’s not breaking news that Americans today live in a world in which the internet and wireless communications are radically changing our everyday lives. With the advent of smartphones and constant connectedness, a new “on-demand” economy has emerged, which makes life more convenient and efficient at the swipe of a fingertip. This new connected economy will enable all of us to live fuller lives, but it may be particularly impactful for those in the “Exploring” stage of life, who are dealing with the complexities of “Administrivia” described above. Although wireless technology and a reliance on apps are most often considered the territory of the millennial generation, many technologies are emerging that may prove particularly helpful for people managing their longevity.
One of the primary concerns for people during this phase of life is the loss of mobility, which may significantly impact our ability to run errands, go to the gym, attend a lecture, or maintain social connections. This is also one of the clearest ways technology can significantly improve our quality of life.
Cars are increasingly offering automated features, such as parking assistance, collision prevention, and lane-departure warnings, that can extend the driving capabilities for aging drivers. But when driving is no longer an option, ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft may be a solution by providing on-demand transportation through free smartphone apps. And while not yet available, Google and major car manufacturers are in the process of developing and testing driver-less cars that could offer independence to those who would otherwise be unable to drive.
Many baby boomers are choosing to continue working well into their “Exploring” years, even if they don’t need the money. According to the AARP, four out of ten baby boomers plan to work in some capacity during retirement.
Technology can contribute to this in several ways. First, it can promote greater flexibility in an existing position by allowing remote work from the comfort of home. Second, it can help us find and prepare for second careers in retirement. We can use online education forums, such as EdX and Coursera, to broaden or update existing skill-sets, or even learn entirely new skills and industries. Today’s on-demand economy can also offer non-traditional employment. For example, services such as Airbnb allow homeowners to rent out rooms, providing both income and social interaction for the homeowner, as do driving services such as Uber and Lyft.
A lot of us fear loneliness as we age, and studies have shown that losing social connection is also a significant health risk. Personal interaction can decrease significantly during these years, especially after the loss of a spouse.
Fortunately, technology has already taken strides to reduce the distance between families and friends with internet-based apps such as Skype and FaceTime. These apps have removed the cost considerations of long-distance conversations, while adding face-to-face contact. In retirement communities, the Connected Living program provides the equipment and a medium to give seniors access to digital social lives, and there are even senior-specific dating websites, such as OurTime, to facilitate building new romantic relationships as we age.
Housing is another significant issue we face in this phase of life. For many of us, the emotional attachment to our existing home may be too great to consider moving to a warmer climate or a continuous care property. Our homes play an integral part in our family lives and are full of memories and our personal effects. Many Americans say they want to age in place, but simple required maintenance can become difficult or unsafe to manage as we age.
Today, apps such as Handy and TaskRabbit pre-screen handymen or contractors for home improvement projects. For more frequent day-to-day needs, there are even apps like Instacart to make grocery delivery simple. Need a butler to help you tidy up your home? Look to Hello Alfred. And in some cases, you wouldn’t even need to lift a finger because voice-activated controllers like the Amazon Echo can access these apps, all while your robot vacuum cleans your floors autonomously. These are all tasks that may be taken for granted in our younger years but can be difficult to manage as we age and are significant to remaining independent and in our own homes.
Healthcare costs may be one of the largest budget items when we retire and may have to manage chronic conditions. Our health may play a deciding role in whether or not it’s possible to remain at home rather than in a facility.
But what if we could more proactively manage our health with the help of devices and apps at home? From smart toilets that can measure weight and vitals, to smart clothing that can track activity levels, or carpets that can detect a fall, developers are working to integrate technology into everyday objects to monitor our health and detect changes or problems immediately. And when outside help is required, apps like Honor can provide peace of mind that trained professionals have been screened and are qualified to help.
Climbing the Learning Curve
In short, retirement for today’s aging generations will look nothing like the ones that came before it. With these technological advancements and innovations, a majority of which are already available and accessible, many aging Americans have the opportunity to live independently, in their own homes, for many years.
There is, however, a learning curve attached to this new digital and wireless economy. While your seven-year-old grandchild can likely surf the web on her iPhone with dazzling speed, many people in this phase may have difficulty learning and adopting technology. For example, a recent Pew study found that one-third of Americans had never even heard of Uber or Lyft. What’s more, while usage is high in younger generations, only four percent of Americans aged 65 or older had ever used these services.
This low usage may be because of a lack of awareness. It may also be because we have a natural tendency to become more “set in our ways,” hesitant to adopt new things as we age. For example, do you know someone over age 65 who still has a flip phone? It may even be due to fears about payment, privacy, and safety concerns. Consider the natural fear that may confront a 75-year-old woman asked to input her credit card number into a small handheld device, and then wait for a stranger to come pick her up and (hopefully) take her where she wants to go. Especially if she is alone. No wonder she may be hesitant.
In addition, these changes may raise important questions about how we plan for longevity from a financial standpoint. For example, what financial implications might there be for continuing to live at home instead of moving to an assisted care facility? Or, when it comes to driving, is there a monetary trade-off of giving up your own car and relying on ride-hailing services?
With these considerations in mind, it’s critical to decide whether or not we’re going to engage in this on-demand, digital economy. Because many of these trendsetting apps are available with a simple tap of a finger, it’s easy to give them a try. Whether it’s for your own use or for an aging relative, do some research to see which apps cover the area you live in and what services are available to you. Ultimately, the more familiar we are with what’s available, the more comfortable we’ll be integrating this new technology into our lives or the lives of our loved ones.