Posted: Sep 19, 2019 5 min. read

Technology is helping older adults stay at home longer, but are we missing an opportunity to keep them connected to their communities?

By Ben Jonash, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP

About one out of four adults over the age of 65 lives alone, according to US Census data.1 Living alone can be liberating, but it also can be socially isolating, which can have a negative impact on health. While various devices have made it easier for people to remain in their homes as they age, technology is generally not used to keep them engaged in social activities or stay connected to their communities.

Consider this: People who live in Loma Linda, California—a small city outside of Los Angeles—live an average of 10 years longer than other Americans.2 Loma Linda is one of five “blue zones” identified by author and researcher Dan Buettner as communities around the world where people live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Although diet, exercise, and environment certainly impact the health of people who live in these regions, older residents also participate in social activities and tend to have a strong connection to their community.

What if our existing system of health care evolved into one that focuses on the wellbeing of older adults by keeping them connected to their communities? Could such a change bring the average health span (i.e., the number of years people remain healthy) closer to the average lifespan? To understand what the future of aging might look like it 20 years, the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions recently spoke with 30 individuals who are experts in aging services, policy, innovation and technology.

Can technology enhance human connections?

Technology such as video monitoring, voice-activated digital assistants, and wearable devices that detect falls are making it possible for loved ones and caregivers to remotely monitor older adults in their homes. At the same time, virtual health can make it possible for older adults to meet with clinicians without stepping outside. This convenience, however, can sometimes leave patients feeling disconnected as humans. The adoption of this technology has largely been driven by a dual-value proposition. It offers peace-of-mind to caregivers and it helps older adults feel they are less of a burden to their loved ones. While this is a powerful lever, it appears to have reached noticeable limits of widespread trial and, more importantly, continued use.

But can the technology that improves monitoring and remote clinical connections be equally powerful in helping older adults maintain a connection to their communities and a sense of purpose outside the home…without reminding them that they are aging, sick, or frail? Solving that problem could reframe the barriers to adoption while also opening up the potential to address social isolation and broader social determinants of health.

A wired home is just part of the solution

Care provided by family and friends, in many cases, determines whether older people can remain at home once they are no longer able to take care of themselves. According to a report by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), more than 34 million adults have provided care for a family member over the age of 50.3 With the number of individuals aged 65 and older expected to double to 70 million by 2030, the burden on caregivers is likely only going to grow more unsustainable unless we reimagine how to extend their capacity for care.

Technology, for example, could make it easier for older adults to search for and connect with services that they need. For example, the gig economy and self-service tools could make it possible for older adults to form new connections with other people—both young and old. Older adults who are digitally connected could help challenge the perceptions of retirement. Digital tools could also help identify previously overlooked risk factors related to social determinants of health.

Some organizations are keeping older adults connected

Health plans, health systems, medical device manufacturers, and clinicians should consider ways that technology could be used to address the unique needs of an aging population. Older adults, for example, might not know about the community resources and social services…and how to connect to them. Here’s an overview of three community-based and start-up organizations that are trying to keep older adults connected to caregivers, family members, and their communities:

  • Healthify: This start-up launched by a group of graduates and students from Johns Hopkins University, offers a search feature that connects older adults to community organizations, social services and government benefits.
  • Element3 Health: The GroupWorks platform connects individuals based on their social-recreational interests—ranging from arts and crafts to sports to outdoor adventure.4 Medicare Advantage plans can leverage GroupWorks to engage their members in more physical and social activity, potentially improving their health and increasing satisfaction. While this tool is targeted at older adults today, expanding the focus to younger consumers in the future could help delay or prevent the onset of conditions caused by social isolation and loneliness.
  • Minka’s Multi-Ability Multi-Generation Inclusive Communities (MAGIC) : These small and manageable modular houses help older adults to remain independent. A Minka home can be a private residence located in a backyard of another residence, clustered in pocket neighborhoods, or it can be part of a village of modular homes. The MAGIC model aims to reduce social isolation and cultivate interaction among generations.5

Can we humanize technology?

We envision a future in which technology solves many of our health and well-being issues. But will the proliferation of technology make us long for more human connections? Health plans, health systems, medical device manufacturers, clinicians, and caregivers should consider ways to make the most of technology to enable health and well-being. If technology can help us maintain our independence as we age, it could also ensure that the link to our friends, families, and communities isn’t broken.

Endnotes
1. The Population 65 Years and Older in the United States: 2016, United States Census Bureau, October 2018
2. The Blue Zones: Nine Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Dan Buettner, 2012
3. Caregiving in the US 2015, AARP Public Policy Institute, June 2015
4. Element three Health, Healthcare innovator attacks social isolation and loneliness with rapidly expanding network of clubs, February 21, 2019.
5. Bill Thomas believes modular homes are solution to middle market challenge, Senior Living Innovation Forum, March 13, 2019.

 

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Ben Jonash

Ben Jonash

Principal | Doblin | Monitor Deloitte

Ben is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and a leader at Doblin, Deloitte Consulting’s innovation practice. He leads Doblin’s life science and healthcare business and has developed deep experti