What do we talk about when we discuss aging? More often than not, the conversation goes straight into healthcare – with aging inherently comes the decline of our physical and mental health, and our system, be it government or private, has always worked to address these issues.
But how often do we talk about the lifestyle of older adults? We may ask about their health, but do we ever discuss their happiness?
Loneliness among older adults
Loneliness is a largely underestimated issue among older adults, especially the growing demographic of adults who choose to “age in place” – stay in their homes – rather than move into an assisted living environment. In a recent survey, the Institute on Aging found that of the older adults outside of nursing homes, 1/3 lived alone. For women over the age of 75, almost half lived alone.
Aside from health risks, living alone can be a major challenge for older adults. Often, friends or family have moved or passed on. Retirement may mean a lack of structured social activity. Transportation can also be difficult – according to the AARP, our life expectancy surpasses our safe driving expectancy, and if public transportation is even an option it can be difficult for adults with mobility issues.
However, loneliness and social isolation come with health risks of their own. Social isolation can lead to depression, cognitive decline, increased blood pressure, and early death. Surprisingly a recent AARP study found that health issues associated with social isolation in older adults leads to an estimated $6.7 billion in Medicare spending.
Designing with older adults in mind
Needless to say, our system to care for our aging population needs work. And these issues need to be addressed now: a recent report from IBM claims that by 2050, much of Europe and Asia will have 40% or more of their population over 60 years old; 30% in the US and Canada. And we’re simply not ready for this; according to CityLab, only 1% of US housing is currently equipped with what they call “Universal Design” – no-step entrances, single-floor living, wheelchair accessible interiors and lever-style fixtures.
Health aside, it is up to us, as a society, to address the issues that our aging population faces in order to not only survive, but to thrive. With modern technology, we have an opportunity to address some of these issues. As Jody Holtzman, our advisor says, “Designing for older adults doesn’t necessarily mean designing for disability, it means designing for accessibility. If you can make something easy enough to use that someone with no technological background or experience can intuitively use and enjoy it, then it’s not only good for them, it’s good for everyone.”