From touchless faucets to voice-controlled lights, technology is making it possible for seniors to age in place

Mel Washburn is a former firefighter, teacher, and trial attorney. Whether fighting fires in a building, a classroom, or the courtroom, once he retired, he realized that 90% of his social life revolved around work.

Washburn, 77, knew he needed to find a way to build a social network in retirement. Washburn also knew that he and his wife, Pam, 75, wanted to continue living independently in his own home.

He quickly learned that technology could play a vital role in achieving both goals.

First members of The Village Chicago, a membership-based organization whose purpose is to connect and improve the quality of life for Chicagoans 50+, the Washburns now socialize through in-person events and Zoom. And they rely on technology to maintain a safe home environment.

The Washburns are part of a growing demographic. World Health Organization estimates that by 2050 more than 2 billion people will be 60 years of age or older. America is also changing. According to Rodney Harrell, vice president of family, home and community at AARP, “In 2034, we will have more people over 50 than under 18 for the first time.” Illinois, where 16.6% of people are 65 years or olderis not an exception.

“The vast majority of people want to stay in their homes as they get older,” Harrell said. And technology is increasingly making it possible, from touchless faucets to voice-controlled lights.

However, as Harrell points out, only 1% of homes have features that people need to age in place.

Felice Eckhouse, founder of Elderspaces, a Chicago company that helps clients design and modify homes so they can age in place, attributes this gap to designs that haven’t been adapted much since World War II. “It’s a yin yang that’s out of control. We need a space that we’re not reconditioning before you can access the devices,” Eckhouse said.

But Harrell sees potential in the technology to close some of this gap. “What we (at AARP) focus on are changes that can be made at home regardless of medical conditions. Technology can’t do everything, but it plays an amazing role,” he said.

Even in the home, Eckhouse said, “the smartphone is the engine behind a host of digital assets, from hearing aids to security systems, lighting systems, door entries and kitchen appliances.”

Smartphones also offer basic help with daily tasks and communication.

“I still use technology in all the normal ways. If I need to look up something, I look it up online,” said Mel Washburn. “I would have a severe case of boredom without my phone: news, books, calling people.”

His wife, Pam, who lives with multiple sclerosis, relies heavily on her smartphone as a daily communication tool.

Identifying technological solutions for people living in inadequate homes can seem like a chicken-and-egg problem. That’s because a lot of technology requires high-speed Internet, which isn’t universal, says Laurie Orlov, principal analyst at Aging and Health Technology Watch, an industry research firm.

However, once internet service is installed, Orlov said a wide range of options, such as voice-based technologies, cameras and motion detection sensors, can be used “for predictive analytics to identify a potential problem and make make the world as safe as possible. ”

But not everyone is tech savvy.

Mel Washburn remembers dictaphones and groups of secretaries, but he also experienced the evolution of technology during 28 years as a partner in a large law firm. Not everyone is so comfortable adopting new devices.

Orlov challenges the common misconception that baby boomers are more comfortable with technology than the previous generation. Although they develop some comfort, baby boomers want to keep what they have, while the tech industry forces change. Telephones are a good example.

“Most people don’t update their phones as fast as updates come in,” Orlov said. Eventually this leads to older, disabled devices like phones that used to work on 3G networks but no longer work on 5G. As a result, “baby boomers will be just as frustrated (as the previous generation),” he said.

Still, whether it’s free tablets through an Illinois Department on Aging program or using Zoom for The Village Chicago film club, technology can help seniors age in place in a number of ways. different.

“Technology can potentially be a huge enhancer of the features of homes and address some of the gaps,” Harrell said. The technology doesn’t end with touchless faucets, activity monitors, and voice-controlled lights to address low vision issues and prevent falls. “There is a thriving technology in sensors that understand behaviors, like when someone has gotten out of bed,” Harrell said.

Even Alexa can be used for more than just turning on the lights, says Jim Rosenthal, CEO of, a free information resource for seniors and their families. “Cameras, microphones and the ability to see everything that’s going on can be taken much further to know that a parent is okay.”

The technology doesn’t have to be complicated either. Patricia Greenberg, owner of The Fitness Gourmet and author of the book “Eat Well, Live Well, Age Well,” said she loves apps like Noom and MyFitnessPal that help seniors keep track of their personal nutrition and exercise routines. exercise. These are just another way technology can help seniors maintain healthy, independent lives.

Going through all the apps and technologies available can be overwhelming, but organizations like Village Chicago can help. And resources like AARP, and the Illinois Assistive Technology Program, which provides free information and help with technology, offer essential information. For Illinois residents, the Illinois Department on Aging offers a senior helpline (1-800-252-8966).

Amy Lulich, Senior Policy Advisor for the Illinois Department for Aging, says, “This helpline is not only where someone can get an assessment of what they might need to continue living in their home, but also find out what assistance they can get. to receive.”

This could include Illinois Care Connections, which offers free iPads, tablets and Wi-Fi hotspots to those who qualify, through the Illinois Assistive Technology Program. IATP also runs other assistive technology programs and demonstrations. Because public programs like the assistive technology program may be restricted in who they can serve, the Illinois Senior Helpline is a helpful starting point.

What works for one person may not work for another. In some cases, “technology isn’t always the best solution,”’s Rosenthal said.

“The problem we are facing now,” according to Willie Gunther, executive director of IATP, “is that older people need to be educated about what is possible and as soon as possible before it becomes an emergency.”

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