Up for the challenge
As editor of the Beacon, and an advocate for older adults throughout the area, I spend a good part of my day reading and thinking about the short- and long-term challenges that face us as individuals and confront our rapidly aging society as a whole.
Sometimes these can feel like intractable problems, and when that happens, it can get dispiriting.
Fortunately, I get to recharge my enthusiasm every December by attending the “What’s Next Longevity Innovation Summit” in Washington, D.C., where more than 200 of the country’s brightest and most creative entrepreneurs come to share the technology and business ideas they are developing to improve the lives of older adults.
Here’s a quick overview of some of the most interesting statistics, technologies and insights I heard there. While most of these don’t qualify as news, it was good to hear that creative minds are using this knowledge to generate a better future.
A number of speakers (and others in the audience I met and spoke with) are working to address the acute caregiver shortage. One of the most intriguing solutions that came up again and again was the idea of compensating family members for the care of other family members.
You might think, “But if I’m caring for my spouse/parent/child, that’s because it’s what I should do. Why would I want to turn that loving care into a paid job?”
Well, for one thing, it’s probably one of the most challenging jobs that exists! And those who offer caregiving often don’t take the time to care enough for themselves, leading to burnout and, all too frequently, serious illness of the caregiver. And that, of course, is not very helpful to the one being cared for.
Perhaps giving caregivers some extra money that they could use to hire respite care or take advantage of adult day care centers — services that would give them a break now and then — would actually result in more and better care overall.
Government insurance (Medicare and Medicaid), as well as private insurance companies, are very interested in this model because keeping the insured out of long-term care institutions and staying as healthy as possible at home results in long-term cost savings for them (and us taxpayers).
In addition, technologies are out there today that utilize sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) — sometimes aided by round-the-clock human oversight — to help educate family (and professional) caregivers, answer their questions on the spot, enable health practitioners to track the condition of their loved ones and intervene when necessary, and even predict if someone is likely to fall soon or is heading for a heart attack.
One hopes that the more such products we have, and the more affordable they become as competition heats up, the better off we’ll be despite the rising need for and serious dearth of professional caregivers today.
For those ready to move to an older adult community, this may be pertinent. Though it may seem that construction on new senior housing is going nonstop, nationally it turns out that “availability is shrinking faster than new buildout,” according to Lisa McCracken, head of research and analytics at the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care.
Occupancy of senior housing units is now at record highs, she reported. Across all senior housing, she estimates an additional 100,000 units will be needed each year starting in 2024 to keep pace with the need.
Some of the builders and housing communities at the event spoke about ways they are blending new technology with hands-on care to address the needs of their current residents and build new, state-of-the-art communities.
Several speakers addressed the growing needs of those at the margins of society. Ryan Elza of the U.S. Administration for Community Living, a part of HHS, said that half of today’s unhoused people are older adults. And that their number is expected to triple between now and 2030 to 2.4 million. He further noted that the shelters offered to the unhoused are not designed for older adults and often can’t accommodate them.
Meanwhile, Jean Accius, the CEO of Creating Healthier Communities, shared the shocking statistic that the current life expectancy of a typical resident of the affluent Washington neighborhood of Georgetown is 97, while the life expectancy of those living just a few miles away in the Anacostia neighborhood is only 65.
He touched on several ways to help close the gap, including such simple steps as meeting the people where they are by bringing mobile health services into the neighborhoods that currently lack sufficient medical care facilities.
What about robots? You’ve probably read about the wide variety of robotic products on the market, including here in the Beacon. There are animatronic pets (cats that meow, turn their head, turn over for you to scratch their belly and more) that dementia patients, in particular, find deeply comforting.
Other robot-like or tablet-based products engage their owners in conversation, check on them periodically during the day, remind them to take their meds or turn off the stove, etc.
You and I might think such items would drive us insane, especially if we found ourselves looking forward to a nice “chat” with our robot. But long-term studies are seeing incredibly positive results with older adults.
One robot called ElliQ produced improved health and a reduction in perceived isolation in more than 90% of users. The robotic pets from Joy for All were found to reduce not only their owners’ loneliness but even their pain.
No doubt the explosive popularity of ChatGPT over the last few months will prove the point as more and more of us become comfortable with AI interlocutors.
I’m just getting started, and I’m already out of space. But I think you get the idea.
People are aware of the serious problems we face with insufficient caregivers, far too few geriatricians, rising homelessness and an “epidemic of loneliness,” to quote the Surgeon General.
But others are working hard to tackle these challenges, drawing attention from governments and investors who want to reduce costs and improve lives.
If you met and heard some of these (usually, but not always) young inventors and entrepreneurs talk, you would probably feel a lot better about the future. I know I do.