Frances Ayalasomayajula, Head of Population Health, HP Inc, believed encouraging older adults to adopt technology creates opportunities for better clinical care management, as she addressed the audience over a video conference at AIMed Europe 2019 took place in central London between 17 and 19 September. 

“A shift is occurring and demographics are changing. Traditionally, we had an elderly population of roughly 4% of the overall population. Today, the numbers are at 16% and in some countries, even greater,” Ayalasomayajula said.

“Some of us regard the shift as the ‘Silver Tsunami’ which changes also the dependency ratio. In the past, the number used to be one individual taking care of an average of two to three other individuals. Now, it is about one taking care of four. We anticipate the number to be shifting to one taking care of six or even ten. This is going to be a huge challenge which affects our delivery of care as we are already facing a global shortage of physicians and clinicians to care for our population”. 

From Silver Tsunami to Silver Lining

This becomes an enormous opportunity or a “silver lining” according to Ayalasomayajula. “Technology will not only play a significant role to enable our abilities to accomplish the delivery of care… it is also true when we look at technology in the hands of those who can use, essentially enabling them to play a more active, engaged role in their own health journey. The most interesting part is the population at large and the patients themselves, expect this and they want this”. 

Ayalasomayajula cited figures from a large study on aging and technology published earlier this year by Ipsos Mori, the third-largest market research firm in the world. “Data showed that people do look forward to technology in helping them to improve their quality of lives and health as they grow older. Although there are some variances, on average, there is no significant difference in opinions”. Overall, the silver economy is expected to be at $15 trillion strong as the demand for population health management turns $58 billion by the year 2025 and up to 85% of seniors expressed they will like to live independently. 

Nevertheless, the economy and will of individuals are not enough to sweep away some of the stereotypes society held towards older adults and technology. As pointed out by Ayalasomayajula, these include the assumptions that older adults require longer time to learn new devices and to complete a task, the preference to use physician instruction manuals and in-person support rather than virtual-assistance, being more distractible, make more errors and inability to deal with errors, and do not understand technology language and so on. 

Sweeping away the stereotypes 

In some respect, these misconceptions are similar to the ongoing discussion of interoperability, privacy, governance, and cyber-security. Ayalasomayajula thought all of which are inhibitors that are not to be taken lightly especially older adults know where their interests lie and their expectations and these will impact how technologies are being marketed to them. Ayalasomayajula had once asked older adults to draft some “love-letters” – things that they love about technology and “break-up letters” – things that do not. One of interesting remarks she received revolved around the washing machine. Whilst modern washing machines are relatively sophisticated, they are not necessarily intelligent enough to meet the needs of these elderly and provide them with the information they wish to obtain.  

Elizabeth, who received her first computer at the age of 89.

In another example, Elizabeth, an elderly who received her first computer at the age of 89, had penned down her thoughts about adopting technology. She wrote, “the computer is the greatest thing that happened to me”; “Email is my life line…”, and When I am curious about something, I google for all kinds of information”. Ayalasomayajula said Elizabeth, who just turned 100 this year, is not alone, previous clinical trials detected a 20% reduction of clinical depression for elderly who have access to technology. There are also evidences to show that the use of computer creates social connectedness and address challenges like isolation, loneliness, and even pain management. 

“It’s amazing that older adults are willing to use technology and I think the opportunities for us to do much more than what we are doing today is there and the way to get there is through partnership both private and public sectors, as well as directly with the communities,” Ayalasomayajula added.

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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.