How Technology is Making Aging in Place Possible

Guest post by Janine E. Payne, MPH, a health care communication professional, mom, wife and singer. With more than 20 years of experience in health communication, Janine’s career spans almost every sector, including non-profit, government and agency work, to name a few. Follow Janine on Twitter @Janine_Payne or check out her Tumblr, Before and After 50

Aging is what we do. We think about it all the time: whether we’re anxiously awaiting 18 or 21 years-old, or to get our hands on an AARP card – we’re always counting up or down – I guess it depends how you look at it.

Look, I’m gravely afraid of becoming the relative whose home you visit and are welcomed at every turn by throw rugs. Trip. Walk. Straighten. I mean – we know they can present certain dangers in the house, and especially for older adults.  I recall my mom’s futile attempts to remove throw rugs from my grandmother’s home, only to find them replaced by her next visit. In reality, this tango between my mom and grandmother represented a demonstration of love by one person, and another’s efforts to clutch and maintain independence; also a show of caring for loved ones as they try to age in place.

To prepare for writing this article, my girlfriend’s indulged me by responding to request for feedback via Facebook and email about this very topic: aging in place, which is defined by as, “living where you have lived for years, not typically in a health care environment or nursing home, using products, services, and conveniences which allow you to remain home as your circumstances change”. In other words, you continue to live in the home of your choice safely and independently as you get older.

The six women who readily replied to my call represent your kid’s teacher, a university instructor, the woman who sorts and deliver your mail, the lady in your choir who sings like she doesn’t have a care in the world, your human resources manager, your co-worker or neighbor. Their ages range between 30-55 years-old.  I promise that you will find yourself in at least one of their observations about aging.

The adult/child in you speaks.

My Grandmother and Mother.

When asked about their greatest joy and fear about growing older, these adult children expressed tremendous zeal for having gained so much wisdom in life, and being secure with oneself, and able to enjoy the simplicity of life.  Each person spoke of the future with hope for “new and different” experiences, and one person said, “Being able to look back and “remember when –  I am still in awe about how time has flown by; seems like just yesterday it was 1977”.  I was moved by this comment, which struck me for being so doggone reflective, and yet spoke to life’s momentum, and guarantee of aging.

Fear of growing older is complex – as is its definition.

You might agree fear is one of the most complicated emotions. As one woman described her greatest fear about aging is “not being here for my son with special needs, or not being able to help care for him as my husband and I grow older – not knowing what may strike our family health wise, and how I will manage caring for my parents as they get older as I am an only child.” Another friend says she fears not being able to “adequately plan financially”, and adds “I don’t want to be a burden on my children; however, I fear I may not be able to live successfully on my own until my death if I have failing health or other issues. I have been researching long term care insurance and other options.” Our personal concerns can seem overwhelming, but luckily for our generation there are now a few resources on these topics from the U.S. Department of Labor  and that can help.

 “Having no one to care for me when I am old. I have no children…so I wonder who would care for me or visit me in the nursing home.”

Helping our loved ones age in place, well.

The biggest concerns the group of women respondents raised about their aging loved ones include the means for caring for them financially and emotionally from a distance. For instance, the recently widowed 75 year-old mom who is relatively healthy, but requires some coordination of care: doctors/specialists and the myriad of prescriptions needed daily. She says, “It’s confusing to keep up with her healthcare and it’s not centrally managed by one provider. She has to work individually with various specialists.” Boy do I feel like Oprah at this moment, “you get a resource, you get a resource, and you get a resource.” In fact, we now have the Questions are the Answer Website, which provides tips for helping someone (including yourself) prepare for appointments before, during and after a visit to your primary care office. The Administration on Aging Eldercare Locator helps you locate Area Agency on Agency (AAA) locations in your own or loved one’s area by simply entering your zip code.  Note:  I was quite successful at coordinating a few home modifications for my mom (long distance, mind you) through her local AAA. They understood my need for specific details regarding the home visit, were respectful of my concern for my mom, and accommodated my requests as much as possible.

It’s not easy… and I am not close enough to where I can do all these things for them.”

Let’s think out of the box.

When asked what resources they felt were needed to help support their parents with decision making regarding aging in place, I found one person’s response profoundly honest:  “Tools to help start or have conversations about all this stuff – what questions to ask. I have no idea if my parents have even talked about this with each other. I would probably search for a caregiver’s association or AARP to see what they have. But really, I don’t know of “the” place to go to get this kind of help or information. Maybe there is a lot out there – I haven’t yet actually searched.

I imagine she’s not alone, and I would suggest visiting the National Aging in Place Council, which is another excellent starting point to bridge the gap between questions, answers and taking action on aging in place resources. As health communicators, I believe this foreseeable need presents an important opportunity we cannot afford to overlook.

“Aging-in-place to me means that she’s able to grow old in her own home with minimal assistance.”

So, if money were no object, what would you do to make your parents/loved one’s home more comfortable and safer?  Responses from the group of women ranged from making adaptations to the home – to organizing an in-home assistant, getting a security system, and ensuring they have resources that allow them “to enjoy these ‘golden years’ and not have to worry about missing doctor’s appointments s because they can’t afford the co-pay or the prescription medication. Well, this might not be a substitute for an in-home assistant, but I found two mobile apps on AARP that can help us help our parents/loved ones with medication management (adherence).  Additionally, Emergencylink allows you to store important contacts and records in one place.  Both are available for iPad, iPhone, and Android users. Technology has proven to bridge gaps across the world and we now have an unprecedented opportunity to use it to care for our aging population, even those far away.

 “I would make sure they had a home with NO steps!  No one ever considers getting older and we buy these homes thinking we will live forever.”

The “a-ha” moment for me is the resources at our fingertips now are so very different than the resources our parents have. Some of that is generational, our parents are living longer and a huge part is technology and the opportunity it presents. As we all live longer, what can we do to care for our elders and prepare our children to care for us? There’s probably a few apps for that. What other opportunities do you foresee technology and social media presenting for us in healthcare, particularly your Aging in Place? I think we’ve only seen the beginning.

 “Aging-in-place to me, means she’s able to grow old in her own home with minimal assistance.”

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