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Latest in health: tech for your home, making a city age-friendly

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For today's latest in health segment, we look at ways to make services more accessible to seniors both in and out of the home.

Technology for aging

The average lifespan is increasing and with more seniors deciding to live independently, technology companies continue to rise to the occasion -- making everyday functions more accessible.

Kari Olson is chief innovation and technology officer at Front Porch, a family of nonprofits dedicated to responding to the changing needs of the people they serve. She said living independently has changed tremendously over the decades as people embrace new technology.

“As people are living longer, they’re embracing their wellness and they’re really open to using new and emerging tools to support their independence and wellness,” Olson said. “And in that gap has emerged a whole variety of new technology that can be applied as tools to help people live well.”

Some current technology used to help seniors live independently are engagement and smart home platforms like Alexa and Google Home. These devices allow seniors to use their voices to perform functions they could not otherwise, like changing the thermostat temperature or turning on lights in the middle of the night.

“The voice is the first and easiest way for older adults to engage in the digital world, especially if they don’t have comfort with computers or tablets and smartphones,” Olson said. “And this can be incredibly empowering.”

Other useful tools include mobile apps, and there are plenty of free ones out there, like AARP’s app, to serve as valuable resources for older individuals. The trouble, Olson said, comes when people are not aware of the solutions available to them.

“The challenge is really not the apps,” Olson said. “It’s about helping people search for and identify solutions that will help them, and I think that’s an area that needs a lot more work, which is making people aware of what’s out there.”

To address this issue, Olson recommended incorporating support systems to compliment the technology to help seniors use it to their advantage, including something as simple as getting affordable broadband access.

“We have to create support services for adopting these technologies, whether that’s through loved ones or community organizations,” Olson said. “In order for this to really take place, we need both the technology and the support.”

Those systems will likely have to adapt as more seniors become tech-savvy, Olson said.

“This is always going to involve looking for new technology to solve new problems -- things that people won’t have experience in, so it takes a little bit of a spirit of adventure and an awareness that it’s OK to look for solutions to fill the gaps and meet the needs,” Olson said.

Olson said technology is already changing to meet needs in these areas, like self-driving cars in retirement communities and hearing, vision and care-coordinated solutions. A crucial thing to keep in mind along the way, Olson said, is seniors.

“Most importantly, we have to design these solutions with older adults, not for older adults, and that’s a piece that’s still evolving.”

Cities adapt to an aging population

Cities and towns across the country are made up of people young and old, but many do not have qualities or characteristics that are beneficial and accessible to everyone, regardless of age.

Laura Poskin, director of Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh, an initiative of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Partnership for Aging, said that’s why there is now an age-friendly movement that focuses on filling in those gaps.

“An age-friendly city is one that is inclusive and respectful of all ages,” Poskin said. “These things in our environment and in our communities should be good for everyone, and that’s really at the heart of age-friendly.”

In southwestern Pennsylvania, Poskin said she speaks and works with city and county officials to create better intergenerational dialogue.

“A lot of work needs to be done connecting generations, making people feel connected to their neighbors, and that’s a big focus of our work,” Poskin said. “We’re better when we’re working together and when we understand each other.”

Changes she is hoping to implement include infrastructure improvements, especially to the sidewalks all around the city to make them more accessible to seniors, those in wheelchairs or with strollers and anyone else. In addition, transportation and housing remain two huge topics of concern, so Poskin said she is working with officials in these areas to create an age-friendly environment.

“Being at the table and talking to decision-makers who are able to decide how the budget is allocated and really thinking about making sure that people of all ages are able to have options throughout their life, that’s what we’re really advocating for in the long run,” Poskin said.

Poskin’s and others’ efforts go toward adapting to the changing times and making every resident in Pittsburgh feel accepted and included, she said.

“The challenges that we have now are new, and so, the hope is that we adapt to those with our infrastructure and with our opportunities for people so they can really be a part of their community their whole life,” Poskin said.