Features 2000

Not even seniors have a monopoly on aging

... Lifestyle and change in demographics spur high level of interest

by Jack Driscoll

(The author represented the MIT Media Lab at the Washington, D.C., forum referred to in this story)



Aging is no longer the exclusive province of us seniors.

Two dynamics are suddenly thrusting this subject into the limelight for all age groups.

The first dynamic is a growing consensus that the number of years we live has little to do with what age our parents or grandparents lived to. Your lifestyle is what counts, not your genes.  Lo and behold, you begin to age when you're just a kid.

The second dynamic is the bursting of the boomers into the senior scene. The demographic statistics are staggering. Here are a few from the US Census:

  • POPULATION: 34.8 million in the US are over 65 now or 12.7% of the total; 70.3 million are projected in 2030 or 20%.

  • LIFE EXPECTANCY: Was about 57 in 1900; it's about 76 now and rising.

  • RETIREMENT: Age average was 68 in 1950; now 63.

  • GENDER: Women over 65 outnumber men 143 to 100; over 85 women outnumber men 241 to 100.

  • 20% of families have a caregiver; 40% soon.


Incidentally, this is hardly an American phenomenon. The senior population in Latin America and the Caribbean will go from 42 million now to 72 million in 2030. The seniors' total in China in 2030 will be 400 million, and in developing countries the number of those over 60 will be close to half of the total.



So now what? The emerging issues have popped up on the radar screens of the commercial world, academia and governmental agencies, where all agree that technology can play a major role. In the realm of what is known as "public policy" it has drawn the attention of the White House.

Even before any voting, counting or recounting took place, efforts initiated by the Clinton Administration were underway to equip whichever transition team would be working during the interregnum period. The initiative was led by Duncan Moore, associate director of technology for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

One hundred representatives of industry, government and academic communities met for two days in early October to develop policy proposals for the next Administration. A lot of groundbreaking work is done in the field of aging, so the issue being grappled with had to do setting priorities.

"It's like when President Kennedy stated that we needed to put a man on the moon," said one of the facilitators, Rory Cooper of the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center. "It wouldn't have happened so fast otherwise."

The focus was on the factors that trigger aging (they boil down to lifestyle) and reductions in capacities among seniors. Every aspect was looked at from diet to exercise to medications to exotic technologies.

The participants were broken down into five groups to pound out specific proposals. My group worked on "healthcare and assistive technologies" and came up with a three-point recommendation:

1. Target diseases and health problems that we felt could be dramatically reduced or eliminated including falling, incontinence, frailty, dementia and Alzheimer's.  

2. Move the point of normal health care to the home/dwelling rather than to the clinic, outpatient or doctor's office.

3. Create individual medical profiles using information technology so that seniors would have every piece of personal data at their fingertips, easily accessible and well protected.

An overriding concern of all five groups was the essential element of caregiving. "Technology cannot substitute for human caring, human love," said Katherine D. Seelman, director of the National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR).

Among the organizations represented were AARP, the University of Illinois, Sandia, the VA, National Science Foundation, Qwest, MIT, Department of Education, Commerce Department, Ford Motor, Columbia University, SPRY Foundation, Agilent Technologies, Paralyzed Veterans of America, National Institute of Standards and Technology, RAND, Daimler Chrysler, Princeton University, Eastman Kodak, Aetna, Harvard University, American Foundation for the Blind, Carnegie Mellon University and OMB.

Clearly the issue of aging is getting lots of attention from the family room to the Oval Office. New initiatives, new technologies, new research findings, new challenges and a new outlook among seniors are energizing the increasingly self-sufficient senior set.

Donna E. Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services, summed it up when she said, "We may have to age, but we don't have to grow old."

December 1, 2000


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