Technology guru turns her attention to aging in place

Laurie Orlov grew up in the corporate high-tech world, working for 30 years as an information technology executive and later as an analyst for Forrester Research, the respected technology research company.

More recently, she has been applying her knowledge to a pressing question facing baby boomers and seniors: how to age in place safely and successfully.

Last year, Orlov started her own market research firm, Aging in Place Technology Watch, as a way to spotlight technologies and services that can help people live independently as long as possible. She also is studying to become certified in geriatric care management.

Surveys show that most people would prefer to stay where they are as they age. And with residential real estate markets in a deep slump, many people will have no choice but to age in place.

What’s more, the coming age wave likely will make aging in place a key component of efforts to contain exploding medical costs at a time when health care delivery systems already are severely strained. Orlov notes that 70 percent of Americans over age 65 will need some form of long-term care in their lifetimes. Assisted living facilities cost an average of $36,000 per year, according to AARP, and most costs are paid out-of-pocket. And an acute increase in demand for care is expected to open a gap in the system’s ability to provide services.

Age-related living decisions are urgent not only for today’s seniors, but also for baby boomers who are helping their own aging parents manage and make decisions, Orlov says. “Boomers are the first Internet-connected generation, and they will take their tech literacy with them as they consider the issues of aging in place.”

In a recent research report, Orlov described a series of technologies that can improve communication and reduce isolation for seniors, and also improve safety through electronic monitoring.

As the market develops, we’ll start to see as commonplace products like motion sensors that interact with security systems and alert caregivers when activity isn’t detected according to schedule. Automated phone systems will remind people to take their medications–and family members or caregivers will be able to help seniors manage their care long-distance over video-enabled web connections.

Much of the technology Orlov envisions already is available–butthe market is “largely unexplored and poorly understood” by consumers, she notes. “It’s not really visible as a technology category, and it’s not well marketed. She also concedes that some technologies are still immature and too complicated for most consumers to use.

A recent study by the Consumer Electronics Association reflected this, with 37 percent of Americans over age 60 reporting that they often are frustrated by consumer electronics technology, compared with just 24 percent of people age 18-49. The study concluded that marketers need to do a better job focusing on older consumers.

That said, Orlov cited several technology products that are ready for prime time today:

– Cell phones: “It’s unfortunate to find any senior who is mobile and doesn’t carry a cell phone,” Orlov says. She notes that several vendors – Verizon AT&T and Jitterbug – have phones that stress usability and come with pre-configured emergency numbers and buttons that can be set to reach family members.

– Personal emergency response devices: These wearable devices allow seniors to call for help in the event of a fall or other problems. Orlov notes that the products so far are mostly being marketed to seniors–and not to their children, who often play a big role in influencing purchase decisions.

– Personal computers: “All seniors should have a PC,” Orlov says. “They open up a world of information for seniors, including the ability to connect with other seniors and share your interests. Already, the proliferation of elder bloggers is amazing. The absence of a PC means absence of visibility.”

Several computer vendors, including Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, are marketing simplified user interfaces that make PCs easier to use. Orlov also likes a new company, BigScreen Live, which markets software that can turn any PC into an “easy-to-use senior computer,” including simplified e-mail and address books, easy picture sharing, a daily news digest and games.

Copyright 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc