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Reinventing old age? Some MIT tech assertions are simplistic

MIT Technology Review’s "Old Age is Over" is thought provoking.  Or in the case of the technology section – "Old Age is Made Up," written by Joe Coughlin, head of the MIT Age Lab, the content is just plain provoking. We agree that old age is made up – but in this article, that assertion is underpinned with generalizations that are just, well, also made up. And it shows a lack of understanding about who benefits from technologies that exist in their current form, or that some of those have been upgraded well beyond his generalizations.  Consider:

Is the PERS industry a failed market?  Sized at $3.1 billion, is that failure? And is it just being coy to say that only 2% of the 52 million people aged 65+ has sought a PERS device? Does that percentage for the 65+ include the 20% (10 million) that are still working? Or the 1.3 million nursing home residents or the 85-year-olds who are working? Does the PERS device he is describing include the Apple Watch Series 4 app with a link to a call center?  The MobileHelp Smart with the Samsung watch? And does he get it -- why people need and benefit from PERS? Health status, including fall risk, recent discharge from a hospital, Parkinson’s, dementia and a host of other factors keep the market thriving.  In addition, companies are experimenting with radar, motion sensors, and other options, including voice assistants. These can augment or substitute for the need for a wearable on the body.

Most older adults are online?  Because it is easy, like most other observers he describes 65+ as a single demographic. That is akin to saying 10-year-olds are in the same age demographic as 30-year-olds. With 20% still working, the 65-75 age range distorts the entire 65+ age bucket. According to Pew (who he quotes), 73% of the 65+ are online. Well, not exactly. According to Pew, Internet use for those aged 75-79 is only 60%, and it drops to 44% of the 80+. And let's not even mull access to broadband in the home, that's only 59%.  As for smartphones, only 31% of the 75-79 age group had them as of that survey date, and only 17% of the 80+ owned a smartphone -- neither of which is surprising given the user interface and associated setup, data conversion -- smartphones can daunting at any age.

Hearables may destigmatize hearing aids – really? For those with significant hearing loss, will "translation and augmenting certain environmental sounds" help people with severe hearing loss for whom actual hearing aids are life-changing?  Meanwhile, hearing aids are getting a makeover that the article ignores, including downward price movement, ability to buy them online (and over the counter), and coverage through Medicare Advantage plans – those changes alone makes them available to more people.  At the high end of the price curve, they are incorporating new features, including fall detection, AI, integration with smartphones, which are all available now. That may make them more useful and desirable for those with significant hearing loss.

Ride-sharing services and home-delivered food keep people aging at home?  All fall into the category of necessary and useful, but these are not enough to keep people at home and out of ‘institutions.’ What are the real drivers to stay at home? Comfort in your own surroundings, lack of savings to pay for senior living, combined with a justifiable worry about their (long) life expectancy. Then if people remain at home and IF (a big IF) their health status enables them stay there, that may be feasible with family caregivers, supplemental home care, food delivery or and/or cleaning. But rides on demand from an app on your phone?  That’s a problem for older people, as just noted in the New York Times.  Maybe that means hailing a ride from a real phone. For a medical appointment, using a provider-paid medical transportation ride -- likely not summoned by an app.   



Just saw Louise Aronson speak at Vintage House in Sonoma. She’s an MD and gerontologist who just published Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life. She told a story of an older woman (aged 80+) she met in San Francisco outside a medical building whose designated ride had not shown up and who could not get a cab the old-fashioned way.  Aronson watched as two cabs pulled over and then, presumably when the driver saw the elderly rider, pull away. Dr. Aronson ended up giving the woman a ride home (another story) but the point was well taken. Ageism is alive and well (basic decency, not so much). And regardless of how far we’ve come—or how many gadgets or apps there are to make aging easier/better—we still have a long way to go.