How Technology Will Support an Aging America

New technologies are forming a growing industry to help seniors age in place at home.

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The digital technology revolution is intersecting with the realities of an aging society. It's not clear yet which, if any, products or services will emerge as "killer apps" for seniors, their families and their caregivers. But at least some of the flood of tech products, software and related apps are moving toward commercial development, and outlines of an industry are taking shape.

Granddaughter and grandmother enjoying time together while looking at tablet computer.
Granddaughter and grandmother enjoying time together while looking at tablet computer.

[See: 10 'Digital Utilities' You Need Every Day.]

One powerful focal point of these developments is "aging in place" – the phrase that describes the overwhelming preference by Americans to grow old in their homes and avoid nursing homes and other institutions as long as they can. A growing mountain of behavioral research finds that people are more likely to remain healthy and stay independent by living at home.

This assumes they can continue to receive the help they need as they age and can stay connected to friends and social opportunities. That's a big question for many seniors, and, increasingly, technology is playing an enormous role in providing an affirmative answer to it. At the same time, the soaring cost of institutional care is pressuring private care companies and government entitlement programs to seek affordable in-home solutions whenever they can.

Laurie Orlov is an aging-in-place guru and a longtime technology veteran and analyst. She has been taking a disciplined look at senior issues and technology opportunities for several years. The constant flow of senior technology products and services being announced on a daily basis is overwhelming. They claim to be able to solve every conceivable aging ill and need. Orlov's newsletter, "Aging in Place Technology Watch," helps makes sense of this product chaos.

In particular, her recent "2013 Market Overview" report makes sense of how all these products are helping to build an industry. "With its fragments assembled into an overall puzzle, this business for boomers and beyond represents a conservative $2 billion market today," she writes in the report. "Between now and 2020, based on growing boomer awareness and their own aging, this market will grow to at least $20 billion."

Orlov describes four aging-in-place technology categories that have emerged:

1. Communications and engagement. This space is enormous and includes email, chat, games, video, cellphones, smartphones and tablets, as well as personal computers.

[See: 7 Hidden Smartphone Expenses.]

2. Home safety and security. All manner of home security systems are springing up. The systems deal not only with possible intruders but a growing range of personal health and safety issues. They use sensors, webcams and digital communications to provide help with fall detection and the broader areas of personal emergency response systems.

3. Home health and wellness. Telehealth and mHealth (the "m" stands for mobile), medication and disease management tools and fitness products.

4. Learning and social contribution. Home-centered communications technologies can help people stay connected with friends and family, engage in online learning and education, participate in volunteer activities and earn income from home.

This is the way seniors and their families should look at aging-in-place technologies. New technology can be daunting and even alien to older consumers. But instead of worrying about what is not known, a better framework is to focus on the help that is needed, and look at these products and services that meet those needs.

"Customers will demand products that are as attractively designed and easy to use as a game or tablet, ubiquitous as a cellphone and as extensible as a PC," Orlov writes in her report. To further commercialize the aging-in-place market, she says four conditions have to be met:

1. Technologies must be intuitive and well-supported.

[Read: How to Manage Your Digital Afterlife.]

2. Device vendors must be capable of integration and extension. "Many of today's gadgets don't communicate – into or out of the home, but especially with each other," the report states.

3. Costs to consumers must be affordable.

4. Products must be available on widely adopted platforms. "Too many user interfaces are one-off designs, unlike any others, even within a single device like an iPad," Orlov says. "So consumers may gravitate towards applications that work with ones they already use, including Facebook or Skype."