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6 Innovations to Help People Live Better as They Age

Safety, independence are possible by leaning into technology

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Growing older doesn’t have to mean leaving your home.

Numerous technological achievements promise to make aging in place easier, safer and even more satisfying. Each of the half dozen innovations mentioned here has been in development for years, and the technologies often overlap.

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As they continue to evolve, some disconcerting details can’t be dismissed or ignored, including potential intrusions into privacy. But the overarching goal is to help you live better and smarter.

1. Artificial intelligence answers questions

In recent months, OpenAI’s ChatGPT AI chatbot practically exploded onto the scene, followed relatively soon after by artificial intelligence (AI)–infused versions of the Microsoft Bing search engine, which takes advantage of OpenAI’s technology, and the conversational Bard AI from Google, which complements Google’s own search engine.

These are still early days for AI. Its potential to transform every corner of society, for better or worse, cannot be overstated.

How AARP is assisting innovation

The AARP Innovation Fund, created in 2015 with $40 million, invests in businesses that support adults 50 and older in three areas: access to health care, aging at home and preventive health. As of 2023, the fund has helped 10 companies.

The AgeTech Collaborative From AARP looks at hundreds of new products and services from start-ups each year. The most promising become part of an eight-week mentoring program to refine their innovations for aging consumers and bring them to market faster.

The Dementia Discovery Fundwhich received $60 million from AARP in 2018, is an international venture capital fund that invests in early-stage biotech companies exploring groundbreaking therapies for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. 

“The development of AI is as fundamental as the creation of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the Internet, and the mobile phone,” blogged a guy in a unique position to weigh in, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. “It will change the way people work, learn, travel, get health care and communicate with each other.”

When prompted, ChatGPT itself suggested several ways in which AI might assist people 50 and older, starting with the fact that it can answer questions on almost any topic, including finance, health care and technology. Conversational bots also might provide mental stimulation and companionship, even to the point of offering therapy to people who are anxious, lonely or depressed.

But AI is far from perfect. It makes factual errors and sometimes spits out baffling results.

“Any new technology that’s so disruptive is bound to make people uneasy, and that’s certainly true with artificial intelligence,” Gates says. “I understand why. It raises hard questions about the workforce, the legal system, privacy, bias and more.”

Tech luminaries, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and OpenAI cofounder Elon Musk, who has since left OpenAI, were among the nearly 32,000 people to start signing an open letter in March calling on “all AI labs to immediately pause for at least six months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4."

In late May, more than 350 executives, researchers and engineers working in AI also released a statement through the nonprofit Center for AI Safety raising their own red flags about the technology.

2. Telehealth can limit trips to the doctor

Social distancing during the height of the pandemic made face-to-face meetings with a doctor extremely difficult. Though people are getting out again, the ability to remotely connect with a health care provider in real time, typically via video, remains.

Telemedicine or telehealth — the terms are often used interchangeably — is not a perfect remedy in every case. You’ll still need to seek in-person care during a medical emergency.

But for more routine health scenarios, a remote visit may be just what the doctor ordered. You won’t have to mess with public transportation, drive yourself or get someone to take you.

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Worth noting: COVID helped catalyze another health-related trend, a rise in the number and types of medical tests you can take on your own from home, from identifying respiratory viruses to testing your own eyesight, with more to come.

3. Smart cars make driving safer

Much has been written about self-driving cars, a prospect that both intrigues and wigs out drivers of all ages. While you may not quite be ready to let go of the wheel, the car you drive may already boast several other driver safety technologies, including lane departure alerts, blind-spot warnings and, should the worst happen, automatic crash notifications.

Watch for tech innovations that not only autonomously chauffeur people around or help them drive, but also assist with the challenge of getting older adults into and out of the vehicle and from the curb to the front door.

4. Alternate realities engage your mind

Some older adults have begun embracing virtual reality (VR) to overcome the mental, physical and social challenges that can come with aging.

By donning VR headsets like Quest from Facebook parent Meta, folks can attend concerts, confront phobias, do physical therapy, exercise, play virtual mini-golf or Ping-Pong, rekindle memories, scale mountains, travel to exotic places and even feel like they’re sharing a physical space with loved ones who live far away. In short, the headsets fully immerse a person in a simulated environment that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to otherwise experience in real life.

Of course, wearing a contraption on your head isn’t for everyone. While some see VR and another interactive technology, augmented reality (AR), as opening doors to what is vaguely known as the metaverse, questions linger about how the physical and virtual worlds will collide with or complement each other.

Rather than going all immersive, AR layers virtual stuff on top of your view of the real world. These days, several games such as Pokémon GO, first released in 2016; Harry Potter: Wizards Unite; and Geocaching use the technology. The tape measure app built into your iPhone also uses augmented reality.

You don’t need a headset or special glasses to check out games and other AR experiences on your smartphone. 

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In early June, Apple unveiled Vision Pro, a $3,499 set of mixed reality goggles the company is marketing as a first-of-its kind “spatial computer.” It is due out in 2024 and relies on your voice, eyes and hand gestures to control whatever you are seeing in front of you, from 3-D movies and FaceTime video calls to remarkably up close and personal encounters with dinosaurs and sharks. 

The stratospheric price and the fact that you still must wear something around your face will be inevitable barriers for many older adults. Still, Apple has a strong track record of turning slow-to-get going markets such as portable digital music players and tablet computers into mainstream products. Over time, the same could happen here.

Video: 3 Easy Aging-in-Place Updates

5. Smart homes keep you independent

The all-things-connected-to-the-internet smart home hasn’t always been so smart or intuitive for users because products from one brand haven’t always played nice with products from another. Devices fall under the internet of things (IoT) rubric, and they encompass gizmos that include garage door openers, smart lights and plugs, security cameras, speakers and televisions.

IoT products can easily keep you connected to loved ones and emergency services through a smart speaker, which you may be using now. But other devices and services are being developed to help older adults remain independent and safe yet still maintain privacy. 

Through an emerging global industry standard called Matter that has support from the biggest names in tech, products from rival brands promise to work together seamlessly and securely, at least at some point. And that’s very smart indeed.

6. Robots assist around the house

You may have fantasized for decades about employing a humanoid robot helper such as The Jetsons’ maid, Rosie. But the robots most people live with nowadays more likely resemble Roomba, the robot vacuum that iRobot launched in 2002. Models from iRobot, and others that have come since then, will mop the floor or both vacuum and mop.

Emerging assistive robots from Labrador Systems, a company in AARP’s AgeTech Collaborative portfolio, reveal other ways robots can perform household chores. These self-driving robots can be trained to make “bus stops” around the home, perhaps by the couch or fridge, where they can retrieve food, beverages and other lightweight items and then bring them to you.

The Labrador Retriever model, with a deck that lifts to different heights, costs around $1,500, plus a monthly fee of $99 to $149.

The utility of social robots remains uncertain, and no one expects them to take the place of fellow humans or even pets. But robots such as ElliQ from Intuition Robotics are providing companionship for older adults.

Meanwhile, robots tied to a smart home can provide an additional set of eyes. For example, Amazon’s invitation-only $1,600 Astro home-monitoring robot (billed as Alexa on wheels) can, in conjunction with an Alexa Together subscription, remotely care for older parents or grandparents living alone.

“When you think about aging, so much of someone staying in their home is trying to understand their behavior patterns,” says Andy Miller, AARP’s senior vice president of AARP Innovation Labs.

“If you deviate from that pattern — Did they fall? Did they not eat? Did they get hurt? I usually see somebody walk by every 47 minutes [and they didn’t] — what happened?” he said. “The intelligence is going to far outweigh the crazy privacy, robots-taking-over concern that people are going to have.” 

This story, originally published April 3, 2023, has been updated to include information about AI mental health therapy, Apple's mixed reality headset, cautions about the technology and developments from AARP.

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