Written by Sophie Baumann, Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. population is not aging as fast as the population of other countries but Americans are still getting older and the current administration has been taking steps to tackle the issues of an aging society. One of these steps was the 2015 White House Conference on Aging. This conference has been taking place every decade since 1961 and the most recent one was hosted by President Obama in July 2015.[i] In the past, these conferences have often influenced developments in the U.S. aging policy. The 2015 conference put a big focus on economic and legal issues that older people face today but it also included announcements from various research labs and tech companies that aim to support the elderly through the use of new technology. One such announcement was made by the HEALTH-E initiative and University of Washington, which introduced an interdisciplinary Aging and Technology Laboratory.
Currently, American women who are older than 85 is the most rapid growing demographic in the U.S.[ii] One in every seven Americans is 65 or older, according to the Administration on Aging (which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). [iii] Since 2004, the older population (people who are 65 or older) has been growing 28% while the younger population has only been growing 6.2%.[iv] In the year 2014, the older population made up 14.5% of the U.S. population. This number is still lower compared to Switzerland’s, which was 17.9% in the year 2015.[v] However, the Administration on Aging expects this number to grow in future years and estimates that by the year 2040, 21.7% of the U.S. population will be 65 or older. With regards to these statistics, the White House Conference of Aging was more important in 2015 than ever before and technology heavily shaped this conference.
For the first time, the organizers of the conference actively invited the public to address their concerns and to suggest issues the administration should discuss. In 2014, they launched a website (https://archive.whitehouseconferenceonaging.gov/) that would allow a frequent exchange between the public and the organizers. In advance of the conference, there were also a number of forums all over the country that discussed the challenges of aging. During the conference itself, there were over 700 watch parties that closely followed the happenings. Older Americans, their families, caregivers, advocates, community leaders, leaders in the aging field, the general public, and policy experts were all engaged and helped shape the content. Through social media interaction and the interaction through the conference website, four main issues received the most attention and were later addressed in the conference:
- Retirement security
- Healthy aging
- Long-term services and supports
- Elder justice
A big focus of the 2015 conference was on economic and legal issues: Financial preparation for retirement, protection from financial exploitation and elder justice. The administration announced several actions to tackle these issues such as facilitating enrollment in retirement plans or countering the abuse of elderly, for instance through research that would give more insight into possible forms of abuse prevention. However, the final report of the conference also emphasized the role of technology as a way to allow older people live healthy and most of all independent lives. The administration and several research institutes and private companies announced to support technological advancements that help the elderly. For instance, during the conference, the administration launched the website www.aging.gov that makes relevant data about the topic of aging openly available.[vi]
Amongst other announcements, the HEALTH-E initiative and University of Washington’s School of Nursing introduced their Aging and Technology Laboratory. HEALTH-E is short for Home-based Environmental Assisted Living Technologies for Healthy Elders. Together with the University of Washington, their lab allows an interdisciplinary research group to design, implement, and evaluate technology for the elderly. HEALTH-E has partners in several organizations such as Microsoft Research and local retirement communities. Current projects in their lab focus on independent and healthy living.[vii]
Their research aims to directly improve the life quality of the elderly but it also aims to help caregivers predict health risks and take better care of their patients. Smart Homes for instance can measure the well-being of their owners by sensing their movements. Through sensing their daily activities, researchers hope that caregivers can detect health issues that arise through limited mobility. The Aging and Technology lab is also researching Health Assessment Tools in general and the ways data could be best represented in order to allow caregivers (and their patients) to make decisions about their health care. Their research also focuses on Fall Detection technologies that give alerts when a person has fallen.
An example for the technologies that older people directly interact with to improve their life quality are robotic pets, the effects of which are also being investigated by the lab. It is generally assumed that robotic pets can positively influence the emotional state and mental health of older people but the lab also looks into how their emotional state in turn affects their mobility and independence.
Some of the technology also benefits both the elderly and caregivers, for instance IT-tools for patients with dementia. The lab currently tests IT-tools that allow people who have been diagnosed with dementia to communicate and to do cognitive training. Ultimately, tools that help patients communicate also facilitate the relationship between them and their caregivers.
The U.S. administration has recognized the issues of an aging society and has promised concrete actions to tackle these issues. Back in 2015, the administration launched the aging.gov website to offer a platform for older people, their families, and caregivers to stay informed. In connection with the conference, research institutions and tech companies made announcements to support technological advances for the elderly. Moreover, through the internet and social media, technology has helped shape the most recent White House Conference on Aging. Although the administration most strongly addressed economic and legal issues such as retirement plans and justice, they still emphasized that the quality of life during retirement can be shaped by technology.