Leveraging technology for a better life tomorrow
by Adam Felts
This blog post was written by Céline Aldenhoven, a visiting Master's student at the MIT AgeLab from the Technical University of Munich.
Before moving to the US, I bought my grandfather in Germany an iPad so that we can still be in contact while I live overseas. Connecting with him in this way made me begin to think more deeply about how technology can make older adults’ lives better.
My master’s thesis work at the MIT AgeLab has given me the opportunity to explore this topic further. Being a software engineer empowers me to build something that could improve other people’s lives. I can use my skills to try and make a change for our aging population.
After talking with some of the AgeLab’s research team, the thesis idea that excited me most involved developing a technological system in the caregiving space. There is significant opportunity to do a better job of supporting caregivers and older adults who want to age in place.
I dove into the academic literature to learn about some of the previous efforts in this field. I reviewed over 180 different articles that focused on various topics, from design for older adults to smart homes for aging in place to technology for caregivers. I also looked at research the MIT AgeLab had done about caregivers’ needs and information-seeking behavior, as well as in the smart home space.
I determined that whatever system I designed would support both caregivers and older adults. In several different research prototypes and system designs I read about, caregivers‘ needs were often prioritized to assure themselves of older adults‘ safety and well-being. In contrast, I wanted to ensure that I designed a system built for older adults, not one that others would put on them. The system should give older users the autonomy to control what information they share. It should be a system that increases the safety of older adults in their own homes. It should be usable not only by older adults who need care, but by those who remain independent but might like to reassure their families and themselves. Key safety features to prioritize include fall and fire detection.
I also focus on several other qualities that aim to empower older users, in addition to enhancing their safety and independence:
Adaptability – For caregivers and older adults, I envision a system that is neither too challenging to set up nor too difficult to learn and can be tailored to individual needs. Moreover, I want to build a system that can grow to encompass technological advances, new features, and new functions.
Affordability – The system should be affordable and not require overinvestment in technology. My goal is to make the barriers to using the system as low as possible so that more caregivers and older adults can benefit from it.
Accessibility – I aim to prioritize connections and supports for older adults and caregivers. The system allows users to share data and connect meaningfully with others in their community.
To build such a system, I plan to involve users in the design and testing phases to ensure the system is intuitive, user-friendly, and tailored to users’ real-life needs. The goal is to develop a prototype system in iterations that can be studied in the field with real users in September.
My hope for the future is that the system will help pave the way to a future where empathy, innovation, and enhanced quality of life flourish in the realms of care and aging. By prioritizing user needs, autonomy, access, adaptability, and affordability, this work will contribute to creating a more compassionate and inclusive life tomorrow for all of us.