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Housing and Technology - Anticipating The Future Needs Of Older Adults

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Predicting the future of technology is very similar to predicting the weather. The further forward in time one speculates about technological developments, the less reliable those predictions will be. There are lessons to be learned in this regard from those who looked forward from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Railroads, mass public transportation within cities, and huge steamships were all technological marvels that were the basis for predictions about the future of technology into the twentieth century and beyond. However, under pressure from the emerging automobile companies, urban public transportation was largely relegated to bus transit in most cities. Automobiles supplanted railroads and the urban public transit systems of America by the 1930s, owing to preferences for personal transportation. America's railroad system is a very efficient method for hauling freight, but it carries very few passengers today. After numerous catastrophes at sea and the advent of air travel, steamships disappeared as a major inter-continental conveyance, and the largest moving objects ever built by man became recreational cruise ships by the 1970s.

On the other hand, the computer, a device that was a laboratory oddity built by the U.S. armed services in the 1940s, was transformed into one of the most significant consumer and business products ever devised, and no one predicted the emergence of the Internet from another defense department technology, a form of communications called Arpanet. Initially, Arpanet electronic communications was devised to provide a means of emergency connectivity between defense department installations if other forms of communication were cut or out of service in time of war. The use of Arpanet for personal communications, and its extension to university campuses, led to today's Internet. The Internet was never, in fact, invented, it evolved. Looking backward into the past, the reliability of technology prediction has been uneven—akin to driving an automobile into the future by looking only into the rearview mirror.

The level of reliability for predicting what might be available to serve the needs of older adults has been very high, however, at least for predictions of up to ten years away. It is difficult, however, to accurately envision the technologies the world will have at its disposal when the population of older adults peaks at midcentury. One very interesting aspect of all the technology that is either under development or can be envisioned is that it will depend upon energy to run. Ever-increasing applications of technology in the home will use increasing amounts of electrical and other forms of energy. This has important consequences for older adults who purchased their homes while working and are now balancing energy costs against health care requirements. Fortunately, most predictions foresee a world requiring products with lower power utilization requirements and homes that should be able to shift between energy from a grid and some level of naturally generated power, such as solar or wind.

The automobile can be seen as an extension of the home, and it is a very important part of the lives of older adults. It is unlikely that the automobile will disappear as a major form of conveyance, as the horse did in the early twentieth century. It is more likely that the use of motor vehicles as personal transportation will continue at least through 2050. It is also likely that the automobile will become more efficient through the use of alternative fuels, otherwise they will become useless as oil supplies become unavailable. Hybrid engines, combining gasoline and electric energy, are already in production, and it is likely that their adoption will be rapid within the first decade of the twenty-first century.

There is a connection that must be made between population trends and the evolution of technology that should, and must, meet human needs. There is virtual certainty about the inexorable growth of the population of older adults well into midcentury. According to census data, the inexorable growth of the total population of the United States will result in an unprecedented 50 percent increase in population between 2000 and 2055. Significantly, this population will be living largely near urban centers which will affect the type, density, and life-long requirements for housing. The fastest growing segment of this population is, and will continue to be, people over the age of sixty-five, with an increase of over 26 million people in this age group between 2000 and 2030. The profile of this population is also increasing in its diversity, becoming more multiracial, multi-ethnic, and multilingual.

Each generation or cohort of aging individuals reaching older adulthood will also bring their experience, education, lifestyle, human associations and connections, and their needs and desires with them as they age. Computerphobia, and technophobia in general, will eventually evaporate, even if it remains in the post–World War II generation. Indeed, discretionary income among older adults is generally high, and housing purchases of single-family dwellings at the upper end of the price spectrum is, and will remain, a purchase made mainly by older adults. With those housing purchases come all of the opportunities for technology; both that which is part of the original purchase and that acquired after purchase. Technology and affluence go hand-in-hand. The acquisition of goods and services, however, is made by older adults only if they meet certain lifestyle requirements.

Have the product development professions, technology innovators, and the homebuilders begun to anticipate new markets for houses, consumer products, and technologies? Those who generate technology have begun, albeit late in the game, to see the demographic changes that are coming, and they have established a variety of approaches to make their product development efforts inclusive. Universal design is an approach that recognizes the diversity of the world population. This philosophy of designing encompasses the diversity brought about by recognizing aging, the expansion of the racial and ethnic base, and the increasing prevalence of individuals with both moderate and severe disabilities, in the population (Covington and Hannah). Another philosophy of design is referred to as transgenerational design (Pirkl). Transgenerational design extends the human factors associated with product development to include characteristics of normal age related change. Theoretically, inclusiveness of this kind offsets disability. In both philosophic approaches, disability can be measured as the difference between a person's ability to cope with his or her environment with and without the support of technology. For many older adults, technology can be the difference between continuous participation in all forms of activity or exclusion from the spectrum of activities that give meaning and enhance and invigorate all people throughout life.

The federal government has recognized universal design as a theme for additions to civil rights legislation and is creating law parallel to the response from the technology producers and the design and engineering communities. The Rehabilitation Act of 1990, Section 508, and the new Information Technology Act of 2001 (in effect in June of 2001) Section 255, both mandate the development of universal products for all communications technology—including hardware and software products, Internet web sites, media productions, etc. Inclusiveness has become a watchword of a movement to extend accessibility to all (Hypponen). The focus on needs of the technology user is called human centered design within the manufacturing industry. Used as a general reference in the development of technology, human centering is another way to state that all technology and its manifestation in products can only be effective in the future if they respond to a broadening base of human capabilities and characteristics. Recognizing this diversity means attempting to understand differing needs and differing human capabilities and characteristics.

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