There is a theme surrounding technology for aging in place that appeared during the HIVE conversation: community. Housing will need to prepare to design solutions that not only incorporate neighbors as a community, but that also provide ongoing support that makes them feel comfortable.

Sarah Susanka, author of the Not So Big House series, predicts that what is on the horizon is “a shift in how we design and how we live that’s the equivalent of the shift from the typewriter to the computers of today. So, think big shift but seamless integration, and I think you’re close to what’s likely to come in the next couple of decades.”

Technologies and devices are available that make a direct link from a homeowner to their caregiver, even giving the caregiver access to daily behavior patterns so they are more informed and can identify issues. While these technologies are not a substitute for human contact and comfort, they offer valuable companionship to the user. New developments, designs, and communities that are developed to target this aging in place demographic have to consider the need for human connection along with how to integrate these technologies into the picture.

New technologies, like Lifepod, offer companionship and caregiving support for an easier path to aging in place.
Lifepod New technologies, like Lifepod, offer companionship and caregiving support for an easier path to aging in place.

“When people can help each other from time to time over the course of the week, and when they know they provide companionship and friendship for those in their immediate environs, there’s a built-in vibrancy to life that’s different than a connection via a screen or audio device,” Susanka says. “Both are valuable, but neither one is sufficient on its own for ensuring aging independence.  Our quality of life is tremendously enhanced when we have neighbors that we know and love.  We are at heart social animals, and without our pack, we can feel tremendously isolated and alone.”

These eight new products address that sense of community and provide a sense of companionship and comfort:

  1. Gerijoy is a caretaker in sheep’s clothing. The virtual pet is available on a tablet and is controlled by caregivers at another location who can see and communicate with patients through the tablet’s camera.
  2. The Claris device is on 24/7 and connects the user to others via an app. The companion allows many ways to interact, including video calling, email, and text, as well as providing alerts, check-ins, and reminders. 
  3. True companionship comes from pets, so Hasbro developed a robotic pet that purrs, cuddles, and genuinely does everything a real pet does except what needs cleaning up.
  4. Lifepod uses the Amazon Echo technology to serve as a whole home hub and acts as a companion by playing games and acting as a caregiver and a personal assistant.
  5. Dusk monitors vital signs and sends them to caregivers. It also connects the user with the world and has a technology teaching tool, keeping them involved.
  6. Mabu from Catalia Health is a personal health care robot that can work with multiple patients, even learning their specific communication style.
  7. Buddy is a robot with services that go well beyond caregiving and companionship. With simple commands this robot can provide home security, education, planning, media tools, and more.
  8. Zenbo is another robot with very similar capabilities to Buddy. Zenbo also shows emotion via its myriad facial expressions and movable joints.

Susanka cautions the companies that are developing these technologies to keep privacy and independence in mind. “If someone perceives that their independence or privacy will be invaded without their consent, they won’t even look at what the device will actually allow them to do as a result of having it,” she says. “So communication about the device is at least as important as the capabilities of the device.”  

The planning that will be required to integrate these technologies into housing will be the next step for builders to consider. They need to design for the connected smart home hub to tie all of these technologies together. One of the most important aspects may be to provide access and community that involves human connection along with technology.
“I think we’ve only begun to touch the surface of the shift that’s coming in this regard, and just like the early days of the internet, when we tried to imagine how that new technology would shift our lives but failed miserably, we are tremendously limited by the scope of our own individual imaginations,” Susanka says. “It takes many minds to jump into the creative fray of envisioning, by responding to problems that can be addressed with a new technology, for the full extent of the shift to be realized.”