Silver Tsunami Coming
Department of Aging Director Thinks Private Industry Can Catch the Wave
October 20, 2009
By Russ L. Hudson
Although the threatened “Silver Tsunami” of retiring baby boomers is a constant refrain in the national debate over Social Security, the nation has done little to prepare for it, warns California’s Department of Aging Director Lynn Daucher.
Daucher, who has had the responsibility of thinking about such matters statewide since her appointment by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2007, recently spoke on campus to an audience of 110 educators at last month’s ECS Affiliates Technology Breakfast, a series of forums on technology-driven issues by the Cal State Fullerton’s College of Engineering and Computer Science.
Statistics show more than half of those 65 and older have some disability, and more than half of those 85 or older are likely to suffer some degree of dementia. Hearing loss, glaucoma, difficulty walking or climbing stairs, arthritis, diabetes and other livable but chronic conditions will only increase, Daucher pointed out.
“There just isn’t enough money to build the nursing homes those millions of boomers will need by the time they reach their 80s, and this cohort is rejecting the idea of nursing homes anyway. They want to work longer and are expected to live longer, so assistive devices and innovative services are crucial to keep them in the workforce and in their own homes.”
The demand is already evident and growing, said Daucher, pointing out that the many assistive devices currently available to consumers include:
- Voice-driven mobile phones with enlarged text displays for the vision-impaired
- Stoves designed to maximize sight lines for people in wheelchairs with back-burner mirrors and see-through pots
- Raised-rim plates for easier use by people with Parkinson’s
- Automatic faucets and anti-scalding mechanisms, which can be especially useful as an assist against forgetfulness
- Electric jar openers and zipper pullers especially suited for those with arthritis
- Chairs that tilt or give a push to help people get up easier
"Those are just a few examples of what’s out there," Daucher said, adding that more will come, low tech as well as high tech — practical things like levers instead of door knobs, height-adjustable counters, garage-door openers and motion-sensitive light switches.
“I’m a baby boomer,” she said, “and I’m aware of what is needed to successfully age in place, that is, keep living in my home. Yet, I have steps up to my house. Can I negotiate those when I’m in my 80s? I don’t have a bedroom on the first floor so I can't live downstairs. I don’t have a flat-threshold, ‘zero-step’ entryway, shower or tub. The sinks don’t move up and down. Many of us have similar houses, and those are the houses we’re going to age in unless we start making changes now.”
Programs Across the Country
People are beginning to figure this out for themselves, Daucher said. For example, in 2001, aging residents of Boston’s Beacon Hill formed a virtual retirement village where they were living, pitching in to organize a nonprofit organization and paying dues to provide services ranging from screening health care and assistive service providers, providing transportation, hanging pictures and other functions … whatever allowed them to age in place.
The virtual retirement village idea has since spread across the country and corporations have entered the field as a business enterprise, providing professional staff to screen providers and coordinate services for their members. One service, for example, is a case manager who goes to the hospital if members are hospitalized. She then determines the services or devices needed to keep members in their own homes, then quickly puts them into place. Dues vary with the service packages.
“Then there is a transportation system based in Maine,” Daucher said. “You sign up, pay a fee and, through paid people and volunteers, you can order a ride like ordering a taxi. If you donate your car, you get a certain number of hours of riding credit. Best of all, it’s national, so if I drive as a volunteer here, I can give the ride-credit hours to my mother, who lives in Maryland.”
Innovations like that don’t call for a line item in the government budget because people already pay for transportation through their taxes, so that money is there, Daucher said. “If businesses see a way to make a profit from that, that kind of service will expand.”
Japan, with the oldest population worldwide, began innovating years ago. But not every attempt was a success and one notable failure illuminates the need for an interdisciplinary approach to what technologies and programs work.
“Their early efforts to develop a ‘smart house' included putting put a motion sensor on the bathroom door, reasoning that tracking changing patterns of bathroom use could provide warning of a health problem. It was a total failure. What they hadn’t taken into account is that when people live alone, or only with a spouse, they don’t close the bathroom door. It takes considering the human side to get the intended result, not just the engineering side,” Daucher said.
What Cal State Fullerton Is Doing
“That is why, when Pauline (Abbott, director of Cal State Fullerton’s Institute of Gerontology) and Unni (Raman Unnikrishnan, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science) and I started talking about this a while ago, we came up with the idea of an interdisciplinary CATLab (California Assistive Technology Laboratory), with gerontologists, sociologists and engineers working together. I look at the CATLab as being an innovation incubator,” Daucher said, and she is promoting the proposed CATLab in Sacramento and Washington.
“It is my greatest hope that people who want quality of life as they age will look at the growing assistive technology and say, loud and clear, ‘I want this!’ The technology and services industry that could grow to fulfill that need and profit by it would be a tremendous economic engine for the state,” Daucher said. “The innovations would benefit everyone — the aging, their caregivers and those who get the jobs that are created.”
The CATLab plan includes the College of Health and Human Development, which — along with ECS and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences — would offer students a minor in assistive technology.
Boomers, while aging fast, nevertheless are healthier, more tech savvy and more affluent than previous generations. U.S. industries have not lost sight of this, said Unnikrishnan, who has submitted a grant application to the National Science Foundation to fund CATLab. The application includes a letter of support from Daucher. “California can and should take the lead in focusing on the economic advantages associated with assistive technology development, manufacturing and marketing. This is a centerpiece of the university’s assistive technology initiative.“
“Once we realized that West Coast academic centers were missing in action when it came to this work we each saw the possibilities and Lynn, Unni and I started talking to each other," Abbott said.
“I would like to see the development of a whole new area of study that I call gerontological engineering. We have only just begun to scratch the surface of what we can do, and I think Cal State Fullerton is well positioned to become a leader in this new endeavor,” said Abbott.
Roberta Rikli, dean of the College of Health and Human Development, echoed Abbott, saying assistive technology isn’t just about the technology, it’s about the people. What will seniors use? What maintains their dignity? What helps the caregivers and those receiving the care?
“Gerontology and social science experts can work with engineers on what is needed to help seniors’ quality of life; engineers will find creative ways to accomplish it, then the gerontologists and sociologists will test it. That back and forth, with each discipline building on the other, is what will spur the kinds of products and programs that will work for our society,” she said.
“We have the team right here at Cal State Fullerton that can do this,” said Daucher. “We have to realize it won’t happen without a lot of work and some setbacks. But I’m hoping that people will share Unni’s dream to transform engineering and that it will enhance all our lives.”