By Coughlin, Joseph F.
Issues in Science and Technology , Vol. 16, No. 1
As the elderly population grows more numerous and more active, the public and private sectors will have to develop specialized products and services.
It happens every seven seconds: Another baby boomer turns 50 years old. As they have done in other facets of American life, the 75 million people born between 1946 and 1964 are about to permanently change society again. The sheer number of people that will be living longer and be more active than in previous generations will alter the face of aging forever.
One of the greatest challenges in the new century will be how families, business, and government will respond to the needs, preferences, and lifestyles of the growing number of older adults. In so many ways, technology has made longer life possible. Policymakers must now go beyond discussions of health and economic security to anticipate the aging boom and the role of technology in responding to the needs of an aging society. They must craft policies that will spur innovation, encourage business investment, and rapidly commercialize technology-based products and services that will promote well-being, facilitate independence, and support caregivers.
Society has invested billions of dollars to improve nutrition, health care, medicine, and sanitation to increase the average lifespan. In fact, longevity can be listed as one of the nation's greatest policy achievements. The average American can plan to live almost twice as long as his relatives did at the turn of the century. Life expectancy in 1900 was little more than 47 years. In 2000, life expectancy will be at least 77, and some argue that the real number may be in the early- to mid-80s. Instead of looking at the high likelihood of death upon turning 50, as was the case in 1900, Horace Deets, executive director of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), has observed that an American who turns 50 today has more than half of his or her adult life remaining.
Although people are living longer, the natural aging process does affect vision; physical strength and flexibility; cognitive ability; and, for many, susceptibility to illness and injury. These changes greatly affect an individual's capacity to interact with and manipulate the physical environment. The very things that we cherished when younger, such as a home and a car, may now threaten our independence and well-being as older adults.
Therein lies the paradox: After spending billions to achieve longevity, we have not made equitable investments in the physical infrastructure necessary to ensure healthy independent living in later years. Little consideration has been given by government, business, or individuals of how future generations of older adults will continue to live as they choose. These choices include staying in the homes that they spent a lifetime paying for and gathering memories in; going to and from the activities that collectively make up their lives; remaining connected socially; or, for an increasing number, working.
Moreover, as the oldest old experience disability and increased dependence, the nation is unprepared to respond to the needs of middle-aged adult children who must care for their children and their elderly parents while maintaining productive employment. Ensuring independence and well-being for as long as possible is more than good social policy, it is good economics as well.
All of us will pay higher health care costs if a large portion of the population is unable to access preventative care on a routine basis. Likewise, the inability of many older adults to secure adequate and reliable assistance with the activities of daily living may lead to premature institutionalization - a personal loss to family members and a public loss to society. Clearly, the power and potential of technology to address the lifestyle preferences and needs of an older population, and those who care about them, must be fully and creatively exploited. …