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Seniors and Caregivers in the Technology Arena

Katie Stebbins speaks about seniors and technology

New Technology Offers Risks and Rewards

Technology is hailed as being both the holy grail of aging well and its biggest risk. People who work in the field of eldercare are excited by the possibilities technology offers, but find the pace of change, myriad options, and varying costs confusing. They are concerned about how to support the safe adoption of helpful technology into the lives of seniors they work with.

Because of these issues, Katie Stebbins, VP of Economic Development at the UMass President’s Office, was asked to speak about the benefits, risks, and challenges of technology and how it affects seniors and caregivers during her opening keynote address at the 29th Annual Western Mass Elder Care Conference, held at the Kittredge Center at Holyoke Community College on Thursday, June 7.

“Technology in the field of aging will grow by 30 billion dollars in the next 10 years.”

The Benefits of Technology

Ms. Stebbins described innovations in technology that allow doctors to look up where you live online and consider environmental factors such as the water and air quality of your location when diagnosing health issues. She stressed that new technology is exciting, offering new opportunities for communication and engagement such as getting to see and talk to your grandchildren who live across the country and making new connections online. Digital health advances such as medication management machines that can distribute the proper dose of medication at the proper time and soles in shoes that can allow loved ones to locate an individual with dementia have already made a huge positive difference in people’s lives, as has the ability to take online courses or see faraway places via computer.

Risks and Challenges

According to Ms. Stebbins, technology in the field of aging will grow by 30 billion dollars in the next 10 years. Along with the excitement and opportunities of new technology, Ms. Stebbins acknowledges risks and challenges. Lack of computer skills can lead people to seek help online and give strangers who may have malicious intent access to their computers. Lack of knowledge about internet safety can open the door to hackers and scammers, and online quizzes and surveys give strangers knowledge they can use for malicious purposes, such as accessing accounts. Posting vacation pictures before you are home is something that gets overlooked, but shouldn’t be, as it can lead to theft while you are away. Cyber bullying, often by family members, is another risk of technology. While online dating can help with social isolation and be a technological benefit, it can also lead to predatory mates who have ulterior motives, such as financial gain.

Another technological challenge is the remaining lack of broadband in some towns so that individuals do not have fast connections to the internet, or any connection at all. Cost is another factor that blocks people from internet access.

Ms. Stebbins shared that amongst 50-64 year olds, 71% search online to diagnose medical conditions and 60% search Facebook to try to figure out a health issue. People who are 65 and over search online 58% of the time and search Facebook 43% of the time for a medical diagnosis. These statistics suggest people are trusting unreliable sources instead of getting the proper, individualized medical care they need.

Swim Outside Your Lane

Ms. Stebbins ended her keynote by encouraging conference participants to “swim outside their lane” when it came to figuring out how technology could help seniors and their caregivers, and to point out new risks. She emphasized that by 2026, 25% fewer 18 year olds will be living in the Northeast U.S. Ms. Stebbins pointed out that this meant fewer people available to be caregivers and less opportunity for youth to connect to seniors. Young people inventing the newest technology need input from seniors and caregivers on what is needed, what works, and what creates risks and challenges. The opinions of seniors and caregivers is vital to the development of new technology. Ms. Stebbins reminded conference attendees that “necessity is the mother of invention” and encouraged the rise of the “Care-Preneur,” the caregiver who can figure out what is missing in new technology and fill that gap. She also pointed out that since people are living longer, seniors are starting new careers later in life, and the field of technology can be a part of that new beginning.