How Tech Makes Life Better for Boomers, Seniors

Technology ‘Saved My Life’: Making Life Better for Boomers, Seniors

From improving fitness and aging in place to ending isolation and engaging
more easily with family and friends, technology solutions help baby boomers
and seniors successfully address many of the issues associated with aging.

Orlando Estrada

Orlando Estrada, 77, uses Microsoft HealthVault to manage his health information online at the St. Barnabas Senior Center in Los Angeles.

REDMOND, Wash. – July 9, 2012Milton Greidinger of New York and Concha Watson of Miami, Fla., were in their mid-80s when they first learned to use a personal computer. The experience dramatically changed both their lives, enabling them to reconnect to the world by pushing through the loneliness and isolation that had threatened to engulf them.

“It saved my life,” says Greidinger, a former buyer for Korvette’s department store, in assessing the Virtual Senior Center, a Microsoft public-private partnership that uses technology to link homebound seniors to activities at their local senior center and to provide better access to community services. “Before this project, I was bored to death. I was just waiting for my time to finish. Now, all of a sudden I’m wide awake. I’m alive again.”

Orlando Estrada of Los Angeles was in his mid-70s when he joined the Exergamers Wellness Club, a health-and-wellness program at his local senior center that uses two Microsoft products — Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 and Microsoft HealthVault — to help seniors get in shape, increase their social interaction and manage their personal health information online. He credits the program with helping him improve his overall fitness, lower his blood pressure, and start walking again after two knee-replacement surgeries made it necessary for him to use a wheelchair.

“I went from a wheelchair to a walker to double canes to, now, a walking stick just for balance,” says Estrada, a former design engineer at Hewlett-Packard. “That’s because of the program we have here.”

Estrada, Greidinger, Watson and many other seniors have achieved significant benefits from projects Microsoft has undertaken since 2007 with a variety of public- and private-sector partners. The aim was to show how different technology products can enhance our quality of life as we age and to inspire other companies, organizations and government agencies to build on that foundation.

“We believe in the power of technology to transform lives,” says Bonnie Kearney, director of Trustworthy Computing Communications for Accessibility and Aging at Microsoft, who adds that compelling evidence of that is the company’s work with seniors. “The deeper we go into these public-private partnerships that put technology into the hands of older adults, and the more positive outcomes we see for seniors as a result of our partnerships, the more enthusiastic we are to discover what else is possible.”

How Technology is Helping Seniors

According to Kearney, there are four main ways technology helps seniors:

  • It keeps them connected with family, friends and community.
  • It keeps them fit and healthy, and helps them manage their personal health information.
  • It gives them the experience they need to better use computers and mobile devices.
  • It helps them live independently so they can stay in their own homes longer as they age.

“Today is a great time to be a senior,” says Lynette Ladenburg, chief operating officer and administrator at Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community in Tacoma, Wash., which is doing groundbreaking work in using technology to enhance seniors’ lives and help them age in place. “There are all sorts of adaptable and affordable technology devices and tools that seniors can use to help them communicate and connect with family and friends, improve and maintain their health, and live independently for much longer than ever before.”

New Generation of Senior Programs Taking Off

Recent events demonstrate how technology is fast becoming an integral part of seniors’ lives.

Exergamers Wellness Club Honored

On July 9, the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) honored the Exergamers Wellness Club with an Aging Innovations and Achievement Award. The annual awards highlight outstanding programs in the field of aging. According to the n4a website, the awards “identify and showcase … innovative and successful programs to encourage their replication by other agencies.”

Program Helps Homebound Seniors Connect

On June 27, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) launched the CEA Foundation “to link seniors and people with disabilities with technology to enhance their lives” and named Selfhelp Community Services of New York as its first grant recipient. Selfhelp and Microsoft partnered in 2010 to create the Virtual Senior Center, along with the New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA) and Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT).

The Virtual Senior Center enhances the lives of homebound seniors by using computers, video and the Internet to create an interactive experience that enables them to participate in activities at their local senior center without leaving home.

Seniors are turning to technology in greater numbers than ever. As of April 2012, 53 percent of American adults age 65 and older use the Internet or email, marking the first time data has shown that more than half of U.S. seniors are going online, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Among people 65 and older who are online, 86 percent use email — 48 percent do so daily — and 70 percent use the Internet on a typical day.

Yet Kearney warns that technology alone is not the answer.

“Just giving someone technology in a vacuum doesn’t help,” she says. “Technology is an opportunity to engage, and the whole point is to help seniors do that. If seniors are actively and more deeply engaged in the life of our community, without being excluded because they don’t have the necessary tools and skills to communicate and connect, then everyone benefits.”

Communicating and Staying Connected

A wide range of technology solutions can help seniors communicate and stay connected. Some of the most notable include:

Skype – Seniors can use Skype for video chats to communicate face-to-face with distant friends and family members. If their friends don’t have a computer or a Skype account, seniors can use Skype to call a telephone from their computer for a traditional voice conversation. Skype also has an online chat feature that lets seniors see when people they care about are online and exchange messages in real time. Skype-to-Skype audio and 1:1 video calls are free. Calls to landlines and mobile lines are available through a subscription or pay as you go, including international calls, which are usually less costly than standard long-distance rates.

Skype also makes it easier for grandparents to be involved in their grandchildren’s lives, reading to them or interacting in other ways, face-to-face with video calling.

Playing with children rather than just talking to them is what makes the difference, according to Bob Stephen, vice president of the Home and Family Portfolio at AARP, who is responsible for senior initiatives ranging from intergenerational communication to aging in place to safe driving.

“If you sat down with a young child, you wouldn’t say, ‘So, tell me about your day,’” Stephen says. “You’d start playing with them and having fun. That’s the kind of thing technology allows us to do — even remotely.”

Email, Texting and Social Media – Numerous surveys have shown that seniors as a group prefer email, but many are starting to get more comfortable with texting and social media, because that’s how their children, and especially their grandchildren, like to communicate.

In what may be good news for grandparents, however, the majority of teens say they still prefer communicating face-to-face because it’s more fun.

Smartphones and Tablet Computers – Sixty-nine percent of U.S. adults age 65 and older now own mobile phones, according to recent data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Many of those are smartphones that enable seniors to send and receive email and text messages, search the Internet, and perform a host of other tasks on the go. Yet tablet computers may be the real growth technology for seniors. Tablet computers offer many of the same features as smartphones, plus some that phones don’t, while giving seniors the same mobility in a larger format that is easier to use.

“The tablet computer is designed for everyone, not just for 20-something techies, so it crosses generations,” Stephen says. “And it’s so simple to use. You pick it up and it just makes sense. We’re finding that, for many seniors, it’s a much easier way onto the information highway.”

Blogging and Sharing Memories – Every senior has a unique story, but they don’t always know how to share it, and families frequently don’t think to ask until it’s too late. A growing number of technology solutions can help seniors share their life stories and accumulated wisdom. LifeBio, for example, is an online system that simplifies the process by providing thought-provoking questions for seniors to answer and an easy way to publish the results. Many other seniors are writing blogs or finding new ways to share their thoughts with friends.

Concha Watson, a former journalist from Colombia, learned her computer skills through eSeniors, a Microsoft-sponsored program that offers Miami seniors customized technology packages and no-charge computer training on recycled computers at senior centers throughout the city. eSeniors is part of Elevate Miami, a broad anti-poverty and digital inclusion initiative that received the prestigious City Livability Award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors because of its fresh and comprehensive approach to computer literacy.

With her new computer skills, Watson was able to start communicating more easily with friends and relatives all over the world—from Paris to Stockholm to Sydney. The computer also gave her a new outlet for her writing. “I like to write about everyday life and the daily routines that drive folks,” she says. “Now I have a way of sharing what I write with people, to remind them of the moments of happiness. If I can remind people of the drops of honey that have fallen into their life, I hope it will help them deal with the bitter times as well.”

Improving, Managing and Maintaining Health and Fitness

While the services above help seniors enjoy life more, another set of new products may help them stay healthy longer by making it easier for them to stay fit and manage their personal health information.

Kinect for Xbox 360 – Seniors are using Kinect for Xbox 360 and other gaming systems to make exercise more fun, and to play cognitive games that may help prevent or delay dementia. Kinect is particularly good for exercise and fitness, because the senior’s body is the controller, which makes movement an integral part of every game. Gaming with Kinect is also a great way to apply the “play, don’t just talk” lesson researchers learned with Skype when it comes to communication between seniors and children, teens or young adults, because players can compete and share games no matter how far apart they are.

Microsoft HealthVault – Seniors can record and manage their personal health information with products such as Microsoft HealthVault, and special tools and applications built on the HealthVault platform, such as the recently released AARP Health Record. AARP Health Record helps people over 50 manage and improve their health by enabling them to store and edit their health and emergency contact information in a secure online location, and to share it selectively with caregivers, family members and healthcare providers.

Making It Easier to See, Hear and Use Computers and Mobile Devices

Seniors also benefit from technology developed for people with disabilities, which makes it easier to see, hear and use computers and mobile devices. For example, the Windows 7 operating system includes several built-in accessibility features that benefit seniors:

  • Speech Recognition – Seniors can use Speech Recognition in Windows 7 to command their PC, dictate documents and email, and surf the Web with verbal commands alone.
  • Magnifier – Seniors can use Magnifier to enlarge their full screen or just a portion, up to 16 times the original size, making it easier to view text and images.
  • Narrator – Windows comes with a basic screen reader called Narrator, which reads on-screen text aloud and describes some events, such as error messages that appear on the screen.
  • High Contrast – High Contrast is a popular feature that heightens the color contrast of some text and images on the computer screen, making those items more distinct and easier for people with minor or temporary vision difficulties to identify.

Microsoft will support these accessibility standards and more in the upcoming release of Windows 8. For more information about accessibility features and assistive technology, see the Microsoft accessibility guides for baby boomers and other computer users.

Helping Seniors Age in Place

Perhaps most welcome for seniors is technology that helps them retain their independence and continue living in their own homes. Safety sensors are one example, enabling family members or other caregivers to monitor a senior’s behavior remotely and to receive an alert if an unexpected change signals a potentially dangerous situation.

Ladenburg says she and her sisters anticipate using safety sensors for added peace of mind if they need to provide increased care and oversight for their mother in the future.

“As the technology advances, my sisters and I will be able to monitor my mother with a safety device that is not intrusive to her lifestyle, but that tells us mom got up in the morning, mom went to bed at her usual time, mom opened the refrigerator or the pantry and ate something,” she says. “Living alone, she’s not going to call until morning if she’s been sick all night. By then, she could be dehydrated and we may end up taking her to the hospital. That has happened. So having the option of placing safety sensors in her home and, as her daughter, knowing she’s safe? That’s huge.”

According to Stephen, aging in place is the overwhelming preference of boomers and older Americans today; he cites AARP surveys in which 86 percent of people over 50 say they want to stay in their own homes as they age.

Another reason for seniors and their families to consider aging in place is financial. The Genworth 2012 Cost of Care Survey reports that the average cost of assisted living care for seniors in the United States is US$3,300 a month and a private room in a nursing home costs more than US$6,700 a month.

“Along with the emotional benefits of aging in place, seniors can save thousands and thousands of dollars if they are able to remain at home,” Ladenburg says. “It’s part of the American Dream: We want to age in our own homes.”

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