The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 10, 2014

Improving seniors’ lives with new technology

April 10, 2014

seniorPhone

Aging populations in the United States, Japan, and many other countries will need future support and services that current public programs may not be equipped to handle. In Japan, where seniors are expected to reach almost 40 percent of the population by 2050, new technology is helping the country address the challenges of an aging society—and may provide lessons for us as well.

Last week, the Washington Innovation Network sponsored an event highlighting advances in information and communication technology (ICT) and their application to helping seniors live healthy and productive lives—what is referred to as "Silver ICT." The event, supported by the US-Japan Research Institute and Japan Science and Technology Agency, featured products that can support seniors in a variety of environments and enable them to safely age in place—that is, to grow older in their own homes and not in retirement communities.

Toshio Obi from Waseda University (Tokyo)—chair of the OECD-APEC Silver ICT project and coauthor of Aging Society and ICT—spoke at the event and introduced a number of technologies being developed by Japanese companies. Fujitsu's Raku-Raku smartphone, for example, is a touchscreen phone designed to be easier for seniors to use. SECOM's My Spoon robot is a device that makes it possible for physically handicapped people to eat on their own.

A demonstration project being carried out in Otsuki City (near Mt. Fuji) is testing Silver ICT ideas on a municipal scale. The project has three main components: e-Agriculture (many seniors in the area are engaged in farming), e-Health, and e-Tourism. In the e-Agriculture effort, for example, producers are connected electronically to warehouse and distribution outlets to increase market access, allowing more seniors to remain economically productive. A full report on the Otsuki project will be released later this spring.

Silver ICT still faces many barriers to wide-scale adoption, as Majd Alwan, director of LeadingAge's Center for Aging Services Technologies, explained at the event. He cited the lack of awareness of available technologies among both potential users and service providers, variable evidence on return on investment, and the need for sustainable business models as current impediments. Nevertheless, Alwan emphasized the number of products that are being used today, including electronic health records, telehealth systems, and medication management solutions. He advocated moving from pilot projects to large scale demonstration efforts and collecting more data on performance and results.

In the United States, seniors will make up about 20 percent of the population by 2050. Using technology to meet their needs may help them live more independently and self-sufficiently, enhance the quality of their lives, and lower the stresses being placed on the healthcare system. Further international collaboration in this area can benefit all countries in providing for a better quality of life for their aging populations.

The Raku-Raku smartphone is designed to be easier for seniors to use. Photo courtesy of Fujitsu. 

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