Mel Washburn is a former firefighter, professor, and litigator. Whether it was fighting fires in a building, a classroom or the courtroom, he realized upon retirement that 90% of his social life revolved around work.

Washburn, 77, knew he had to find a way to socialize in retirement. Washburn also knew that he and his wife, Pam, 75, wanted to continue living independently in their own home.

He quickly realized that technology could play a vital role in achieving both of these goals.

Original members of The Village Chicago, a membership-based organization whose goal is to connect and improve the quality of life for Chicagoans over 50, the Washburns now socialize through in-person and Zoom events. And they rely on technology to maintain a safe home environment.

The Washburns are part of a growing demographic. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050 more than 2 billion people will be 60 and over. The United States is also changing. According to Rodney Harrell, vice president of family, home and community for AARP, “In 2034, for the first time, we will have more people over 50 than under 18.” Illinois, where 16.6% of people are 65 and overis no exception.

“A large majority of people want to stay in their home as they get older,” Harrell said. And technology, more and more, is making it possible, from touchless faucets to voice-activated lights.

However, as Harrell points out, only 1% of homes have features people need to age in place.

Felice Eckhouse, founder of Elderspaces, a Chicago company that helps clients design and modify homes so they can age in place, attributes the gap to designs that haven’t adapted much since World War II. . “It’s a ying yang that’s out of whack. We need a space that we’re not upgrading before you can access the gadgets,” Eckhouse said.

But Harrell sees the potential for technology to close some of that gap. “What we (at AARP) are focused on is the changes that can be made at home, regardless of medical conditions. Technology can’t do everything but plays an incredible role,” he said.

Even at home, Eckhouse said, “the smartphone powers many digital assets, from hearing aids to security systems, lighting systems, door entry and kitchen appliances.”

Smartphones also offer basic help with everyday tasks and communication.

“I still use technology in all the normal ways. If I need to research something, I look it up online,” Mel Washburn said. , books, calling people.”

His wife, Pam, who lives with multiple sclerosis, relies heavily on her smartphone as a daily communication tool.

Identifying technological solutions for people who live in an ill-adapted home can be a chicken-and-egg problem. Indeed, many technologies require high-speed Internet access, which is not universal, notes Laurie Orlov, principal analyst for Aging and Health Technology Watch, an industry research firm.

Once internet service is in place, however, Orlov said a wide range of options, such as voice-based technologies, motion detection cameras and sensors, can be used “for predictive analytics to identify a potential problem and make the world as safe as possible.” ”

But not everyone is tech-savvy.

Mel Washburn remembers dictaphones and secretarial pools, but he also experienced the evolution of technology for 28 years as a partner at a major law firm. Not everyone is equally comfortable with new devices.

Orlov challenges the common misconception that baby boomers are more tech-savvy than their previous generation. Although they develop a certain comfort, baby boomers want to keep what they have, as the forces of the technology industry change. Phones are a prime example.

“Most people don’t update their phones as quickly as updates come,” Orlov said. Eventually, this leads to older, disabled devices, like phones that used to work on 3G networks but no longer work on 5G. As a result, “baby boomers will be just as frustrated (as the previous generation),” she said.

Yet, whether it’s free tablets through an Illinois Department of Aging program or the use of Zoom for the Chicago Village film club, technology can help seniors age in place. in different ways.

“Technology can be a great potential amplifier of home functionality and fill in some of the gaps,” Harrell said. The technology is not limited to touchless faucets, activity monitors and voice-activated lights to solve low vision problems and prevent falls. “There’s a burgeoning technology in sensors that understand behaviors, like when someone got out of bed,” Harrell said.

Even Alexa can be used for more than turning on lights, notes Jim Rosenthal, CEO of Caring.com, a free information resource for seniors and their families. “It can go a lot further with cameras, microphones and the ability to see everything that’s going on to know a parent is okay.”

The technology doesn’t have to be complicated either. Patricia Greenberg, owner of The Fitness Gourmet and author of the book “Eat Well, Live Well, Age Well,” said she loves apps like Noom and MyFitnessPal that help seniors track their personal nutrition and fitness routines. exercise. It’s just another way technology can help seniors lead healthy, independent lives.

Sorting through all the available apps and technologies can be dizzying, but organizations like Village Chicago can help. And resources like AARP, Caring.com, and the Illinois Assistive Technology Program, which provides free information and technology help, offer essential information. For Illinois residents, the Illinois Department of Aging offers a help line for seniors (1-800-252-8966).

Amy Lulich, senior policy advisor at the Illinois Department of Aging, says, “This helpline is not just where someone can get an assessment of what they might need to continue living. in his home, but also to know what help he may be entitled to. receive.”

This could include Illinois Care Connections, which provides free iPads, tablets and Wi-Fi hotspots to eligible individuals through the Illinois Assistive Technology Program. The IATP also runs other assisted technology programs and demonstrations. Since public programs such as the Assistive Technology Program may be limited in who they can serve, the Illinois Seniors Helpline is a helpful starting point.

What works for one person may not work for another. In some cases, “technology isn’t always the best solution,” said Rosenthal, of Caring.com.

“The problem we face now,” according to IATP Executive Director Willie Gunther, “is that seniors need to be educated about what is possible and as early as possible before it becomes an emergency.”

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