Many people think that older people are technologically inept, which is why the week before Thanksgiving there were a million posts on “how to fix mom and dad’s computer.” But as the boomers age, the situation will probably be different.
Joseph Coughlin certainly thinks so. He's the director of the AgeLab at MIT, “created in 1999 to invent new ideas and creatively translate technologies into practical solutions that improve people’s health and enable them to 'do things' throughout the lifespan.” He writes in the Wall Street Journal about some of the extraordinary technologies that are coming down the pipe that will make life a lot easier for aging boomers.
One of the key events in many older people’s lives is when they have to give up their car keys. This is really hard for them and often worse for the kids. (My mom threatened to disinherit me over this one, but fortunately the government stepped in after she sideswiped a few BMWs in a fancy part of town.) The fact is, many older people are terrible drivers; they have terrible night vision and can’t turn their heads around enough to park or see what's behind them. But Coughlin thinks tech will save us:
Autonomous technologies, such as automatic parking, collision warnings and blind-spot detection, will make it possible for retirees to keep driving safely and longer than they otherwise would. Looking even further ahead, we can expect autonomous vehicles to take over driving entirely; all a retiree will have to do is text their self-driving car to pull up and take them anywhere.
(That's why Jim thinks that seniors, not hipsters, will get self-driving cars first.)
Then there will be devices that track what you do to ensure that you're following your usual patterns and send off a message to your family or a doctor if you don’t. An intelligent coffeemaker might communicate wirelessly with a smart toothbrush, and together they would learn what time their owners typically wake. Sleep late or wake early, and the gadgets will alert a physician that the retiree has broken with routine. A tricked-out bathroom, meanwhile, will feature a mirror that scans the person’s face to detect warning signs of cardiovascular disease or risks of heart attack and stroke.
Smart clothing will monitor our heart rates; air bags in our clothing might blow up and cushion us when we fall. Smart carpets might monitor our walking. Eventually, robots might follow us around the house and chat with us. Or we might just get enhanced and turn into robots ourselves. Coughlin envisions versions of “augmented reality glasses” that might project the names of people we meet or the last conversation we shared. And of course, we'll use Oculus Rift headsets to travel. “Using video game technology, retirees can tour a Paris museum or feel the bumps of a jeep ride on African safari, all from their favourite chair.”
Coughlin does balance all this with a few caveats. It’s expensive stuff. The wealthy already live much longer than the poor because of better health care, and this just increases the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Then there's the issue of privacy: “On the individual level, what does it mean when people’s homes and even clothes are collecting big data about their most personal behaviours?” he asks.
He also sees all these technologies as ways of helping people stay in their own homes instead of having to move into senior housing. I find this worrisome. According to Jane Gould, 70 percent of boomers live in the suburbs, and the 'burbs are not designed to be senior-friendly. There are not a lot of people around, and robots cannot do everything. Coughlin acknowledges this:
Finally, it’s vital to remember that technology alone won’t solve our problems. However powerful our gadgets and appliances become, they will never be able to entirely replace the human touch, or completely remove the normal pains and frustrations of getting older.
And indeed, I find the whole idea a bit depressing — aging boomers alone in their big, suburban, robotic homes with their Oculus Rift headsets on. Coughlin is right — let's not lose the human touch just yet.