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Expert Interview: Using Technology to Thrive in Place

Holly Lawrence March 17, 2018
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Tech expert Majd Alwan spoke with Stria about the vast potential of technology to enhance the experience of aging.

In his role as LeadingAge’s senior vice president of technology, Alwan promotes the potential for technology to make life better–for older adults, caregivers and an aging society. Alwan is also executive director of the LeadingAge Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST).

What is CAST and who do you serve?
A: CAST started in 2003 with about 25 thought leaders and came out of a scenario planning exercise that LeadingAge conducted with the Wharton School of Business, identifying technology as one of the major uncertainties that will change the way that we deliver aging services. Now CAST has over 400 technology companies, aging service providers and academicians dedicated to using technology to improve the aging experience.

You recently tweeted that you do not like the term “aging in place.” What term do you prefer?
A: I think the term “aging in place” implies that you are letting someone wither away. I’ve heard the term “thrive in place,” and I think that resonates more with me. We want older adults to thrive–to do and to be their best with whatever functional or cognitive abilities they have. AARP’s data tells us that many people prefer to quote-unquote age in place. So, I prefer the term “thriving in place of choice.” We want to ensure that older adults have the choice, and that they could be thriving in their home, in their community at large, in an independent living unit on a senior housing campus, or in an assisted living facility.

Are there other terms or attitudes you would like to change about aging and technology?
A: Definitely. There is the perception that older adults cannot use technology or would be reluctant to adopt technology. And that is certainly not true. We have seen how older adults started using the Nintendo Wii home video gaming system. It was commonly used in retirement communities for older adults to play bowling. It’s intuitive and easy to use. We’ve seen how common the iPad has become among older adults, and the same applies to e-readers like Nook and Kindle. I think that technology designers can do a lot to improve the usability, the user friendliness, the user interface and other product features to make them more universally accessible.

What do you believe we are missing out on if we believe in these age stereotypes about technology adoption?
A: They [older adults] would be missing out on opportunities, such as online shopping and finding opportunities for travel, concerts or events. They would be limiting their options for engagement and social connectedness with their family and friends, with their adult children, and grandchildren.

How about on the side of aging services providers? 
Today’s older adults are actually going to be demanding, if not refusing to move into senior housing or retirement communities that do not provide some technology support. So, the trend is that not only are we going to see increasing comfort and competency level among the older adults who are going to use these services, but we’ll see higher levels of expectations.

What is your personal favorite technology for the aging services market?
A: I think we’re seeing a lot of progress in voice-first technologies. I am very excited about using these technologies for other applications like telehealth and medication management. These voice-first technologies, like Alexa and Siri, are so easy to use. So, imagine being able to use that technology to record your blood pressure, and for that application on the back end to share that number, along with the historic trends with your nurse who is doing chronic care management for you. Or imagine if Alexa reminds you to take your medication before your meals. Voice-first is something that people want. They want the convenience and ease of use.

Why does tech matter in aging services?
A: From the care provider’s perspective, the more information we have, the more opportunities and the better likelihood of affecting the outcome. Technology helps us to potentially avoid hospitalizations and exacerbations of the chronic condition. We have the opportunity to intervene proactively earlier on and curb the cost associated with hospitalization.

Technology also gets the patient into a habit of self-management, like better adherence to their medication plan, better adherence to their diet, better adherence to their exercise regimen.

Technology can allow us to have a lot more information and make informed decisions.

MORE FROM MAJD ALWAN

Majd offered Stria several recommended titles for longevity professionals. Check out his required reading.

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Holly Lawrence

Holly Lawrence is a content and marketing strategist, and contributing writer, covering aging and longevity, healthcare, well-being, lifestyle and purpose.

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