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Debra Berlyn: A Tale of Two Seniors in the Age of the Coronavirus

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Photo courtesy of Debra Berlyn

Broadband and technology devices are most certainly game changers is this age of COVID-19.

For the older adult community, the benefits of innovation have opened incredible opportunities. For some of our seniors, technology has made an incredible, perhaps life-saving difference during this crisis. However, there are many striking “haves and have-nots” within the senior community. Offering tremendous benefits and opportunities, it is critical that technology reach more within our older adult population.

Here is a real tale of two seniors, providing an example of what is currently represented within the aging community:

Shirley is a 96-year-old woman living in an independent living facility. Before COVID-19, she was extremely social and engaged in her community, having frequent meals around town with her friends and family.

Post pandemic, she is confined to her apartment, has meals delivered, can only leave to walk in a defined area around the back of the building, and can only interact with a limited number of workers in her building. She doesn’t have broadband, and her only “device” is her old wireless phone, used to connect by voice to loved ones.

Ron is a 78-year-old man living in his own home, retired but still continuing to do some consulting work that has him chatting throughout the day with colleagues on Skype. He’s comfortable on his home computer (with high-speed broadband access) and on his smartphone, which has Bluetooth connectivity directly to his hearing aids.

During this pandemic, he spends more time video chatting with his extended family and playing games with his grandkids over an SMS platform.

Both Ron and Shirley are confined to their homes, but Ron is connected to family and friends and continues to maintain his usual lifestyle, while Shirley is isolated and has a greatly diminished quality of life. The difference is broadband and all of the innovative devices broadband enables. While Ron is connected to a variety of devices at home, there are many more tech innovations that older adults can experience today.

Pandemic provides opportunity for older Americans to explore broadband devices

This pandemic provides the perfect opportunity to explore the vast array of technology that is available today to enhance aging in America. 

In addition to the home computer, smart phone and tablet, another valuable innovation for seniors is the virtual assistant, enabled with artificial intelligence - such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home. According to a recent national survey by AARP, 2020 Tech Trends of the 50+ , ownership of virtual assistants is growing.

In 2019, 18 percent of those 60-69 owned one of these devices and 12 percent of those age 70+ had one in their home. In addition to playing music, this device can provide information on the weather, daily news updates, answer questions, turn lights on and off, and perform many other functions. The particular of AI is continuous learning on the part of the device to better meet the needs, preferences, and interests of its user.

Wearable devices, such as fitness and health trackers, are another technology beneficial for the health and welfare of seniors. While we may not be able to maintain our usual activities, there are opportunities to get out and walk and track our steps or take online fitness classes indoors. These devices typically link to smart health apps that may also monitor blood pressure and heart rate.

In some cases, these apps will even communicate this information to a health provider. Adoption rates are growing for wearables as well, with 16 percent of those 60-69 and 11 percent age 70+ now using these tech devices.

Smart home technologies also offers tremendous benefits to older Americans

Let’s not forget Smart Home technology, also offering tremendous benefits for older adults. Advanced safety and security features include smart thermostats and video “doorbells.”

While video doorbells have become extremely popular with all homeowners, there’s a great advantage for an older senior to see who is at the door and speak to that person without having to leave the bedroom. Home appliances, small and large, are getting smart as well, offering benefits for those older individuals wanting to age in place.

These are just some of the tech options that Ron can add to his portfolio today, to build a “smarter” home and enhance his daily life. For Shirley, her needs are very basic to connect her with family and reduce the isolation during this critical time.

Technology innovations can rewrite this “tale of two seniors” and build a brighter technology present for all older adults.

To truly build this tech future, we must extend the availability of broadband to all aging adults and ensure that there is investment in advanced high-speed networks to continue to enable innovation to flourish.

 Debra Berlyn is executive director of the Project to Get Older Adults onLine (Project GOAL) and president of Consumer Policy Solutions, a firm centered on developing public policies addressing the interests of consumers and the marketplace.

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