The good news: Americans are living longer. The bad news: As a nation we’re still scratching our collective head to provide seniors with quality care.
The predicament has stirred the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) to draft a report with 12 recommendations to help seniors and the 76.4 million baby boomers the U.S. Census Bureau estimates are — or soon will be — entering old age.
In the March 15 report, PCAST Co-Chairs Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, and John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science Technology and Policy (OSTP), said the recommendations are intended to improve the lives of seniors by helping them remain independent for as long as possible.
“Technology has played an important role in increasing life expectancy, but it also has an important role to play in increasing the quality of life, by maximizing Americans’ ability to function in their later years,” Holdren and Lander wrote.
Now more than ever, they said, seniors are living longer, and with that comes a rising need to accommodate the shift in demographics. With roughly 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, the census reported that in 2014 about 46 million citizens — or about 15 percent of the population — were over the age of 65. These seniors are staying active and working longer. The Labor Department estimated that by 2024 seniors will represent 8.2 percent of the labor force — a 241 percent increase compared to the 3.4 percent in 2004.
To accommodate this new independence, PCAST's recommendations promote wearable sensors, prosthetics, cognitive training apps and policy changes to make mobility solutions — like electric wheelchairs — more accessible through financial assistance. However, the report placed the greatest weight on Internet availability. Officials said seniors who have access to the Internet, apart from its typical uses, would likewise benefit from a wealth of connections to doctors, caregivers and family members.
In a pre-release presentation in January, Christine Kessel, a PCAST member and planning dean at Kaiser Permanente’s School of Medicine, said the administration is "starting to think of the Internet as a basic health resource" and one that opens the doors to a stream of ingenuity in big data, predictive analytics and other sophisticated advances that may help improve quality of life.
“There is an enormous amount of innovation going on out there related to new technologies and potentially ways in which technology can help people as they age,” Kessel said.
She identified three pervasive challenges affecting American seniors: diminishing cognitive functions, reduced physical abilities, and marked declines in social connectivity and emotional well-being. The following is a summary of PCAST's 12 recommendations.
Research and Feedback: To streamline federal support across health, housing, transportation, communications, energy, education, environment and public safety, PCAST recommended that the OSTP create a yearlong taskforce made up of members from the National Science and Technology Council to identify technologies vital to seniors. Similarly, it advised the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to organize a council to collect feedback from the private and public sectors.
Broadband Plan: PCAST encouraged HHS and the Commerce Department to create a national plan to connect seniors with broadband Internet access and to allocate matching funds for senior digital education centers. The FCC was also told to include senior support in all agreements with telecommunications providers.
Wearables: The National Institute of Standards and Technology was called on to promote wearable health monitors by implementing consumer marketing, instructional information and guidelines for the devices.
Further Research: Officials asked that a number of agencies — including the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, Veterans Health Administration and HHS — to support research for robotics, advanced mobility, cognitive training, home monitoring and emergency communications technology.
Digital Education Policy: PCAST recommended the White House reauthorize the Older Americans Act with provisions to ensure seniors' access to online services and fraud protection. Additionally, the Corporation for National and Community Services was requested to expand its Senior Corps program to teach digital literacy.
Emergency Response: Since seniors are more susceptible to emergency situations, PCAST recommended that FEMA establish a national strategy to create effective communications systems that reach the elderly in times of disaster. It also charged medical agencies with the ambitious task of ensuring all medical information was accessible across agency systems to ensure health-care providers have quick access during emergencies.
Financial Services: Advisers asked federal agencies to put pressure on the banking and financial sector to offer monetary protection to seniors. This was followed with a request to the president to encourage state governors to heighten incident reporting to adult protective services.
Cognitive Training: PCAST advised the Federal Trade Commission to keep enforcing regulation and establishing guidelines for commercial cognitive training technologies that support independence for aging adults.
Improving Telehealth: Officials recommended HHS collaborate with the Federation of State Medical Boards and the National Governors Association to expedite cross-state licensing for health-care providers, a move that would expand the reach of telehealth companies. Officials also asked the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to leverage its Innovation Center to develop payment policies that enable telehealth.
Home Independence: PCAST asked HHS and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to refine regulations and payment policies for home accessibility standards. The goal behind the move is to create standards that allow for modern accessibility technologies.
Product Design: Officials asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to partner with AARP to furnish better guidelines for “senior-friendly packaging” in technology, food and medical products.
Robotic Technologies: PCAST’s final recommendation was for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to investigate ways the federal government can alleviate some of the financial burdens associated with mobility technologies like advanced wheelchairs and car and stair lifts. Attached to this, officials advised that a public-private task force create a 10-year road map to advance wheelchair technologies.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.