Interview with a geriatrics expert

Aging misconceptions and insights

We recently spoke with a geriatrics expert who pointed out more than a few surprising insights about the American boomer population and how they might age.

Boomers might be obstinate to aging: We kicked off the conversation broadly discussing how boomers might think about their own aging process. “Baby boomers won’t age well. They will be obstinate to aging,” she said. Being the first group that went to college en masse, moved to the suburbs and found a whole new world designed for them, protested for civil rights, as well as the Vietnam war, “boomers expect [the aging process] to be modeled for them”. We took this to mean that boomers will expect services designed to maintain and support a high quality of life — as opposed to the idea that they might have to drastically change their lifestyles to fit in with current services and devices available to the senior population.

For boomers, the perception of a service as “high-tech” or “cutting-edge” is not necessary a bad thing: Throughout the research, the team has worried about whether mixed reality is too far out, too cutting-edge as a technology to appeal to seniors. When we think of the first insight — the idea that boomers expect services to be designed for them as they grow older — it becomes clearer that there might be a window of opportunity. “[Services for the aging population] must not look like they’re designed for the aging population… this stuff needs to look like the hot cool new thing… like an iSomething.” Surveys amongst American boomers suggest that at least a third have no desire to retire, and in fact are looking forward to working — if only less and on their own schedule — later in life. Census data supports the fact that adults over the age of 65 lag the furthest behind in terms of technical and digital skills, but the boomer population is much more technically savvy. For example, in 2012, 53 percent of Americans aged 65 and use the internet, as compared to 77 percent of those between 50–64.

Early detection and monitoring systems are beneficial to both users and insurance companies: There’s a broad category of telemedicine and telehealth solutions that enable health care delivery through telecommunications tehcnology. As an example, certain medicine management solutions keep track of when people take their medications. By knowing users’ habits and medical needs, if one day a user forgets to or is unable to take a particular pill, the system automatically alerts a first responder (usually a family member) of the situation. If that first point of contact is unable to respond, the system contacts a secondary contact, usually a neighbor, and finally a medical professional. Services like these rely on keeping track of people’s habits and one could imagine more sensitive and sophisticated services relying on home sensors and smart devices. What would an early dementia detecting service look like for example?

The tough part is to gain user buy-in for such services. “[It’s hard to] get people to give up a part of their independence to get folks to [use services like these]. You need to get that stuff before you need that stuff.” Meaning, it might be easier to accept such support services before they are perceived as taking away a part of one’s independence. Though expensive to pay for, as a form of preventative medicine, users are less likely to suffer from unexpected and costly emergencies — thus also saving insurers money.

Misconceptions around aging abound. Agism is a real problem we must learn to tackle as society if we are to support productive and meaningful lives for the ever-growing worldwide aging population: For example, our interviewee points out that even doctors, nurses, and hospital support staff could benefit from geriatrics sensitivity training because most only study geriatrics as one module out of hundreds in med school. “You can’t assume someone is is mentally ill just because she’s 96 and confused… there might be other causes at play, such as someone not wearing their hearing aid… when seniors present themselves in emergency rooms, many times they don’t really need a CT scan, they’re dehydrated and need fluids. Confusion is a symptom of dehydration.” And one final intuitive but surprising point: “loss of hearing is the greatest social isolator, more so than the visual. You just feel left out.”

As we continue to learn more about the aging population, we as a team have confronted our biases and change our perceptions hopefully for the better.