The Future of Aging and Technology

You might be wondering why a Chief Technology Officer would be part of a conference on aging. Isn’t tech a young person’s game?

First of all, I love Alan Kay’s definition: Technology is anything invented after you were born.

Second, my grandmother, who used a CB radio in the 1970s and bought one of the first Apple computers in the 1980s, inspires a different point of view. When I showed her the internet in 1995, she said, “I was born too soon.” Then she proved herself wrong by living another 11 years, a daily internet user. I learned to never assume that someone’s age determines his or her interest in or affinity for technology.

I also believe we can learn from older adults and their use of technology. Studies show that if a website is optimized for older users, younger users benefit too. When I was building online tools, I would bring my laptop over to my grandmother’s house in Baltimore. She was my best beta tester. If it didn’t make sense to her, I would change the navigation.

Jeff Zientz, Donna Levin, and Susannah Fox on the Technology and the Future of Aging Panel at the White House Conference on Aging on July 13, 2015

What does the future hold?

One possibility is that technology will start to disappear and become like electricity, something we don’t notice on a daily basis. For example, instead of all the gadgets we use today to track and measure our health, sensors might be sewn into our clothes.

Another possibility is that technology becomes ever more present and intrusive, asking more of our attention and requiring even better eyesight and dexterity than the current smartphones require.

I am hoping for the first version of the future. The one that helps us get back to the point of technology — to assist us, not to resist us. To connect us, not to divide us.

I see three ways that technology can have a positive effect on the lives of older adults: through data, connection, and invention.

Data: At HHS, we want to empower citizens with their own health data. Medicare recipients can, for example, download a simple text file that contains all their claims data, which includes, for example, a complete medications list and the date of someone’s last flu shot. Once someone has that data file, they can bring it with you when you travel or give it to a new clinician. It’s called the Blue Button program because it is literally as simple as clicking on a blue button on Medicare.gov to get access to your data.

Connection: There is a cultural shift happening at the intersection of health and technology. The internet connects us not only to information, but also to each other. That’s a wonderful opportunity for all of us to learn from older adults, recreating the multigenerational household and village that we used to have — now the learning happens online on sites like Facebook, but also on specialty sites for caregivers, like Careticker, and on disease-specific sites, like PatientsLikeMe.

Invention: We are a nation of makers. I believe the U.S. can lead the world in inventing ways for older adults to age in place, with dignity. And the government can play a role in fostering this innovation.

For example, people living with Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders often develop a hand tremor, which makes it difficult to keep food on a spoon or fork. Liftware, a company in California, has created a set of utensils that counteract a tremor and allows someone to feed themselves. The research that drives this technology was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

In addition to providing research grants, the federal government can convene and encourage communities of practice, such as the Health Datapalooza and the White House Maker Faire. And we can look for ways to lift barriers to innovation, which is what my team in the HHS IDEA Lab does, finding ways to hack red tape and help create programs like the NIH 3D Print Exchange, a platform for people to share templates, like the patterns you would use to sew a dress, but in this case it might be a template for printing a prosthetic hand or a model for a heart.

Let’s continue the conversation about the future of aging and technology. Please share your ideas for how we might use data, connection, and invention to help all Americans live longer, healthier lives.

This is a cross-post from the White House Conference on Aging blog.


Originally published at www.hhs.gov on July 16, 2015.