Senior Age Tech
There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic changed life as we know it, and among those changes were older adults discovering that technology could move them into a new form of living.
What’s been dubbed as “virtual assisted living” came about when smart devices were used during the pandemic to help older adults stay connected to the outside world.
Daily in-person activities and routines that were familiar to seniors gave way to using smart devices to shop for groceries and order medications online. Walk-in doctor’s visits became virtual doctor visits. Most importantly, seniors used their computers, laptops, and smartphones to video chat with family and friends, helping them to feel less alone and isolated.
“The pandemic has served as a propellant accelerating the adoption of devices perhaps a decade faster than might have otherwise occurred,” writes Joseph F. Coughlin, the founder and director of the MIT AgeLab, a research program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
MIT researchers conducted a series of surveys during the pandemic to understand changes in public attitudes and behaviors. One of the many discoveries reported by the MIT group was nationwide empathy with older adults whose daily routines were abruptly ended by the pandemic. No longer did seniors have access to friends and family and, even if they went shopping, panic buying emptied store shelves of food, toilet paper, and other essential supplies.
But there was one saving grace during the pandemic: technology. Coughlin described technology as a “new household necessity. In fact, technology became the new toilet paper.”
MIT researchers discovered other positive trends resulting from the pandemic that are now deemed necessities:
- Home delivery
- Video chats with friends, family, and caregivers
- Online education that help middle-aged and older adults maintain their competitive edge in the workplace
- Digital services and devices
Working from home also became necessary as employers closed their buildings. People nearing retirement age are considering delaying retirement now that they experienced working from home.
What seniors are also delaying is a decision to move from their homes and into senior residential facilities since technology-enabled services can help them live longer on their own. While the average age of assisted living residents was increasing prior to the pandemic, the average new resident age is now in the mid-80s.
Pandemic Boosts Online Shopping
While technology has had a positive impact on seniors, virtual assistance has also greatly benefited their adult children. Prior to the COVID pandemic, Fay, a 51-year-old mother of twins, barely had time to herself. Fay juggled her full-time job as an X-ray technician with raising her family and taking care of her parents. She also took her parents grocery shopping.
During the pandemic, however, Fay had to change her shopping routine. She did not want to expose her parents—or herself—to the coronavirus. So, Fay said she began shopping online with her local grocery store and having groceries delivered to her home.
“It became so easy that I signed up my family too,” Fay said. “That little change saved me nearly a full day of my life wandering up and down store aisles.”
A Shopper Insights study conducted in 2021 by Moxxy Marketing and Category Partners, found online purchases were about 10 percent of all grocery spending. About one-third of survey participants who started buying online after the pandemic began said they plan to continue buying online. In addition, 52 percent of survey participants who were already shopping online before the pandemic said they will continue post-pandemic.
Social Robotics Will Not Upend Technology Use in 2022
There have been concerns over the social isolation and loneliness felt by older adults well before the pandemic began. To that end, tech firms and entrepreneurs began creating robotic pets and social robots to provide companionship to seniors.
For instance, in January 2017, Intuition Robotics unveiled ElliQ, a social companion specifically designed to not look too much like a robot. The personal assistant robot for the elderly can play music, send and receive messages, play videos, and suggest that its human companion go for a walk, take a drink of water or call their grandchildren.
Amazon got on board with social robotics last year when it introduced, Amazon Astro, a household monitoring robot that works with Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa. According to Amazon, Astor can find its way around the house to check on rooms, people, or things. When Astro’s user is away, the robot can send an alert when it does not recognize a person or certain sounds.
The interest in having social companions with Artificial Intelligence increased even more during the pandemic as nursing homes and assisted living facilities banned non-essential visitors and locked down their buildings.
While some social robotics companies closed or withdrew their commercial offerings prior to the pandemic, 2021 saw a renewed investment and interest in the potential of the social robotics market, according to a report released in December by ABI Research, a global technology intelligence firm. Nonetheless, the company does not expect companion robots to go mainstream in 2022.
“The market still must determine the appeal of key aspects, including form factor, broad functionality/specific capabilities, and end-user comfort, and 2022 will have come and gone before much of that work is honed,” the report concluded.
Although robotic companions may not be the next big thing in 2022, seniors are still holding on to technology. Coughlin foresaw this day in 2019 as he spoke to a U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. Coughlin told the committee that smart devices and apps may facilitate a new “virtual assisted living” for seniors and their families.
MIT AgeLab’s most recent research suggests virtual assisted living increases the competitive advantage of seniors staying in their homes over moving into a senior housing facility. This means that investors and operators of senior living facilities may need to reconsider the current housing and care model they are offering older adults.
According to Coughlin, just as the pandemic prompted grocery stores to service customers “in both the store aisles as well as the customers’ front porch,” the senior housing industry must now decide whether they will only deliver care in a home for seniors or “wherever the consumer and their families choose to call home.”