Housing and Technology

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Anticipating the future needs of older adults

Predicting the future of technology is very similar to predicting the weather. The further forward in time one speculates about technological developments, the less reliable those predictions will be. There are lessons to be learned in this regard from those who looked forward from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Railroads, mass public transportation within cities, and huge steamships were all technological marvels that were the basis for predictions about the future of technology into the twentieth century and beyond. However, under pressure from the emerging automobile companies, urban public transportation was largely relegated to bus transit in most cities. Automobiles supplanted railroads and the urban public transit systems of America by the 1930s, owing to preferences for personal transportation. America's railroad system is a very efficient method for hauling freight, but it carries very few passengers today. After numerous catastrophes at sea and the advent of air travel, steamships disappeared as a major inter-continental conveyance, and the largest moving objects ever built by man became recreational cruise ships by the 1970s.

On the other hand, the computer, a device that was a laboratory oddity built by the U.S. armed services in the 1940s, was transformed into one of the most significant consumer and business products ever devised, and no one predicted the emergence of the Internet from another defense department technology, a form of communications called Arpanet. Initially, Arpanet electronic communications was devised to provide a means of emergency connectivity between defense department installations if other forms of communication were cut or out of service in time of war. The use of Arpanet for personal communications, and its extension to university campuses, led to today's Internet. The Internet was never, in fact, invented, it evolved. Looking backward into the past, the reliability of technology prediction has been unevenakin to driving an automobile into the future by looking only into the rearview mirror.

The level of reliability for predicting what might be available to serve the needs of older adults has been very high, however, at least for predictions of up to ten years away. It is difficult, however, to accurately envision the technologies the world will have at its disposal when the population of older adults peaks at midcentury. One very interesting aspect of all the technology that is either under development or can be envisioned is that it will depend upon energy to run. Ever-increasing applications of technology in the home will use increasing amounts of electrical and other forms of energy. This has important consequences for older adults who purchased their homes while working and are now balancing energy costs against health care requirements. Fortunately, most predictions foresee a world requiring products with lower power utilization requirements and homes that should be able to shift between energy from a grid and some level of naturally generated power, such as solar or wind.

The automobile can be seen as an extension of the home, and it is a very important part of the lives of older adults. It is unlikely that the automobile will disappear as a major form of conveyance, as the horse did in the early twentieth century. It is more likely that the use of motor vehicles as personal transportation will continue at least through 2050. It is also likely that the automobile will become more efficient through the use of alternative fuels, otherwise they will become useless as oil supplies become unavailable. Hybrid engines, combining gasoline and electric energy, are already in production, and it is likely that their adoption will be rapid within the first decade of the twenty-first century.

There is a connection that must be made between population trends and the evolution of technology that should, and must, meet human needs. There is virtual certainty about the inexorable growth of the population of older adults well into midcentury. According to census data, the inexorable growth of the total population of the United States will result in an unprecedented 50 percent increase in population between 2000 and 2055. Significantly, this population will be living largely near urban centers which will affect the type, density, and life-long requirements for housing. The fastest growing segment of this population is, and will continue to be, people over the age of sixty-five, with an increase of over 26 million people in this age group between 2000 and 2030. The profile of this population is also increasing in its diversity, becoming more multiracial, multi-ethnic, and multilingual.

Each generation or cohort of aging individuals reaching older adulthood will also bring their experience, education, lifestyle, human associations and connections, and their needs and desires with them as they age. Computerphobia, and technophobia in general, will eventually evaporate, even if it remains in the postWorld War II generation. Indeed, discretionary income among older adults is generally high, and housing purchases of single-family dwellings at the upper end of the price spectrum is, and will remain, a purchase made mainly by older adults. With those housing purchases come all of the opportunities for technology; both that which is part of the original purchase and that acquired after purchase. Technology and affluence go hand-in-hand. The acquisition of goods and services, however, is made by older adults only if they meet certain lifestyle requirements.

Have the product development professions, technology innovators, and the homebuilders begun to anticipate new markets for houses, consumer products, and technologies? Those who generate technology have begun, albeit late in the game, to see the demographic changes that are coming, and they have established a variety of approaches to make their product development efforts inclusive. Universal design is an approach that recognizes the diversity of the world population. This philosophy of designing encompasses the diversity brought about by recognizing aging, the expansion of the racial and ethnic base, and the increasing prevalence of individuals with both moderate and severe disabilities, in the population (Covington and Hannah). Another philosophy of design is referred to as transgenerational design (Pirkl). Transgenerational design extends the human factors associated with product development to include characteristics of normal age related change. Theoretically, inclusiveness of this kind offsets disability. In both philosophic approaches, disability can be measured as the difference between a person's ability to cope with his or her environment with and without the support of technology. For many older adults, technology can be the difference between continuous participation in all forms of activity or exclusion from the spectrum of activities that give meaning and enhance and invigorate all people throughout life.

The federal government has recognized universal design as a theme for additions to civil rights legislation and is creating law parallel to the response from the technology producers and the design and engineering communities. The Rehabilitation Act of 1990, Section 508, and the new Information Technology Act of 2001 (in effect in June of 2001) Section 255, both mandate the development of universal products for all communications technologyincluding hardware and software products, Internet web sites, media productions, etc. Inclusiveness has become a watchword of a movement to extend accessibility to all (Hypponen). The focus on needs of the technology user is called human centered design within the manufacturing industry. Used as a general reference in the development of technology, human centering is another way to state that all technology and its manifestation in products can only be effective in the future if they respond to a broadening base of human capabilities and characteristics. Recognizing this diversity means attempting to understand differing needs and differing human capabilities and characteristics.

Technology trends

Matching technology trends to the wide range of human capabilities and characteristics may be an easier prospect than one would initially think. An important trend is the movement in industrial production from mass production to mass customization. By the 1960s, American industry was responding to a theoretically homogeneous population with massive quantities of individual product technologies. A mass-production line has little variability, however, and efforts to market such technologies requires a focused approach defining the American population in terms of limited stereotypes. Running parallel to the increasing diversity of the population, automated, robotic, and computer-controlled machining and manufacturing permit single production lines to produce as many as three hundred different products. In this way, smaller quantities of goods can be produced profitably, permitting the manufacturer to address diverse consumer needs. Additionally, manufacturing has moved from stockpiling goods in an inventory that must be sold over time to a form of production called just-in-time production, in which goods are produced only as they are required. Older Americans are more divergent in their characteristics than are younger adults. If housing, building products, appliances, and consumer products are going to be successful, they must address varying individual requirementsand do so quickly. Emerging production technologies and methods for product distribution are at hand that will address the new trend toward mass customization.

One of the most significant technologies related to this form of production may soon be seen in the apparel industry. As of 2001, several manufacturers of full-body scanning devices were planning to launch their technologies. This technology will make it possible to manufacture clothing within days of a person being measured by a computer-controlled imaging system. Various forms of full-body scanning technology presently exist, including laser-light, photo-optical, and holographic scanning. Since the technology is just emerging, advances are rapid and prices are dropping. So-called scanning salons have appeared in California and are in use by the catalogue distribution company Lands End. The scanning process takes seconds, and automatic computer-driven software determines the measurements required for a specific garment. The data are transferred to computer-controlled pattern and fabric cutters, and custom-fitted clothing is returned to the consumer in a matter of days. It is possible to speculate that such technology could eventually drop in price and increase in resolution, speed, and capacity to the point where it will become a built-in part of a dressing room in the home. Scanning will permit all clothing to be accurately tailored to fit any individual, and scanning on a continuous basis will permit accurate sizing as people change through time.

This technology has applications well beyond the provision of clothing. It can also be used to monitor overall healthfulness and the effectiveness of a person's diet. Body conformation and composition, differences in body shape over time, even determining measurements of static positioning and reach could be important aspects of determining early onset of osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. Indeed, full-body scanning could revolutionize the design and development of furniture, automobile interiors, and other products where fit is critical for support, healthfulness, and comfort.

With regard to overall trends in technology development, it is important to understand that technology development at the beginning of the twenty-first century shows no sign of reaching a plateau. There are more individuals and organizations than ever before generating technology and instantaneously sharing information about what they create. The combination of expanded technology generation and worldwide electronic communication has accelerated the rate at which technology can advance. Innovation and information can be dispersed on a global scale.

One source on innovation and technology trends is the Battelle Memorial Institute, an independent laboratory for technology development in numerous areas of activity, including energy supply, transportation, housing, and consumer product development. Battelle has issued forecasts of technology development, many of which will directly impact the home environment and the lives of older adults. They include wearable, voice-actuated microcomputers and the integration of sensor systems in the home and in appliances permitting communication between people and technology, and between products. Battelle also predicts important advances in energy and alternative fuels, such as fuel-cell development and alternative power sources for home environmental heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, as well as many more manifestations of current technologiesand new ones just ahead.

On the immediate horizon are many forms of wireless, miniaturized, interactive computer technologies that will be worn by a person rather than sit on a desktop. Computer sensors combined with a fitted garment called the Smartshirt is a next step in continuous monitoring of vital health signs in and away from the home. Smart clothing is being developed for the armed services to monitor the condition of armed-services personnel operating in battlefield conditions. An array of computer-controlled sensors imbedded in a T-shirt will provide continuous information on vital signs. If wounded, the smart clothing will provide data on the wound to a base station so that medical personnel will be adequately prepared to deal with the trauma once in the field.

Applications of this technology for civilian use and health care are already underway at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Older Americans, especially those enduring the long-term effects of heart disease and other cardiovascular problems will be among the first to benefit from this technology. Wireless communications will permit continuous monitoring of an individual's condition, including location, by a home computer. The base station in the home will automatically signal either the individual or a health care professional if any change, especially an injurious or life threatening change, takes place. Since voice input of data and synthetic voice output from computers is already at hand, the technology will be interactive in the most user-friendly way possible. Other means of communicating a condition will be possible for the deaf and hearing impaired.

Advanced residential technologythe house that learns

The instantaneous communication of information immediately begs questions of security and privacy. These issues are genuine and profound. Setting privacy issues aside, the benefits of nonintrusive continuous monitoring technologies are clear. Wearable, wireless, miniaturized computer technologies actuated by voice that permit sensor-detected organic changes or self-initiated body and vital-function scans allow the creation of a dramatic change in the dynamic of health care and extended independence. Clothing that is fit-mapped to the individual, containing an array of sensors that are tracked from home computing systems, will alter the long-term prognosis for extended independence among older adults.

Technology for monitoring the individual is already moving forward. Another step in the process is the elimination of hard-wired home electronics and the development of invisible technologies that not only monitor the individual but also control and regulate the home environment in response to individual needs. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems will become both smart and aware, sensing individual changes and conditioning air through antibacterial filters. Antibacterial impregnations of carpeting have been available for over thirty years. The next step will be wall, floor, and ceiling surface treatments that are antiallergenic and antibacterial.

Gardening is an important activity among older adults, but asthma and other allergic reactions to both lawn and garden flora, and also to chemical treatments of lawns and gardens, can inhibit continuous gardening as susceptibility to allergic conditions increases. There is the possibility of the development of genetically engineered lawn and garden products that eliminate both the sources of allergy and the need for chemical treatments.

The major change on the horizon for the home environment is the development of invisible products and technologies. The development of communications between the home and the homeowner, and also between product technologies, with no interface except awareness, gives rise to a fundamental change in the way everyone interacts with their built environment. An aware house has been built at the Georgia Institute of Technology. It is fitted with nonobtrusive electronic monitoring devices that allows the home, through its computer technology, to sense the behaviors and patterns of the daily lives of individual adults. There are imaging devices implanted in the walls and ceiling, as well as worn on a person's body, that can observe daily routines, and the performance of tasks, and even learn to read gestures. One important area of the research is an attempt to understand changes in memory through observation of individual task performance. Specific experimentation is underway that will have older adults performing household tasks such as food preparation while there are intrusions of other adults during the process. By interfering with the performance of tasks, the focus required through short-term memory can be monitored. This awareness may render clues about the early onset of short-term memory loss and early onset of dementia. Knowing the patterns of an individual and monitoring the changes that occur over time may give rise to the interventions necessary to offset confusion and withdrawal. The goal becomes provision of subtle and progressive supports, technological as well as through the intervention of others, that will sustain an individual's ability to remain in his or her own home for as long as possible.

Transfer of this level of technology to applications in the realm of housing production is likely several years, if not decades, off. This research, using nonobtrusive computer-controlled monitoring, has just begun. However, the implications for future home development are clear. The technology is currently available, and will improve over time, that will not only permit monitoring of the physiological status of an individual, but will also permit observation and knowledge of the psychological, cognitive, and behavioral health of an individual. These developments are specifically directed at understanding older adults and providing support to aging in place.

Retirement, work, education, and leisure

Working at home is now a reality for a substantial number of Americans. The home office, with its computer, facsimile machine, and telephone, is now a definitive part of the household environment. The relationship between work and retirement is variable and flexible. Retirement for many may occur more than once or twice, and many that have left careers are at least partially employed. Clearly, new generations of older Americans can anticipate longer careers, several forms of employment, more changes of career, and intermittent work roles mixed with periods of retirement. This is a very different picture from the image of a person working for one company for three decades, being given a gold watch, and picking up a fishing pole with no thought of continuing in any form of active employment. Older adults in the twenty-first century may experience a much later onset of formal retirement and never be fully removed from the workforce until health changes alter their ability to continue working. The home office will grow in importance as this societal change inexorably moves forward. Many professional women will experience the ebb and flow of work, family, and retirementall related to the options afforded through the home office.

The home is also becoming a primary location for education. America is at the beginning of a new age of life-long learning. The University of Phoenix has been among the leading institutions offering distance education and degree programs to a global student body. Before the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, many institutions of higher education will be offering courses to more students off-campus than are residents in dormitories on campus. The home is also a learning center for a growing number of older Americans. They may become involved in educational programs for intellectual stimulation, but many will be involved in degree programs through distance education.

Asynchronous education is the term applied to self-learning at one's own pace. Once again, computing permits an extension of many forms of learning without the presence of teachers. The classroom of the future may well be a large flat screen connected to a robust home-computing system that connects students all over the world. Windowing onscreen will allow real-time discussion. Instantaneous translations will permit a history teacher in India to offer a history course to a class of young and old students on campuses, at other locations, and in their own homes. Broadband technology will provide the teacher (and the student) the ability to call up still photographic visual materials and streaming video in electronic form. After the lecture, course notes, the lecture itself, and support materials will be available on an on-call basis. Indeed, the class itself will likely be prerecorded for logging on at any time, with prescribed times for exchanges with the teacher. It may not be possible to tell the difference between much of what will become available in the form of educational materials, actual courses, and entertainment. There are a variety of terms now applied to these mixed forms of presentation, including infotainment andedutainment. The presence of computer technology has already changed the classroom and the approach to teaching almost every subject.

For older adults, the implications of these changes in education, work, and entertainment may blur the distinction between activities. It will also be a means for continuous involvement and intellectual stimulation that could have a beneficial effect upon well-being and health and wellness. Computing could be used to support memory as well as continuing education. Repetition requires patience on the part of a teacher, but a computer doesn't care and can be called upon to repeat information continuously.

Home technologies and daily life

Imaginative films have depicted many forms of robotic assistance, most of them anthropomorphic in character, conducting household chores. This represents the visible technology that is less likely in the future, unless preferences among American consumers call for a walking, talking robot with a name. The 1999 film, Bicentennial Man, featuring the noted actor and comedian Robin Williams, explores a well-worn (some might argue threadbare) theme in movie making about such anthropomorphic robots. In actuality, robotic assistance in the performance of tasks is more likely to be dispersed among product technologies and appliances in areas such as lawn care, household surface cleaning, cooking, and home maintenance. The house will be aware, and the products within the house will be smart and able to communicate. Computer technologies imbedded within food-storage containment areas and refrigeration units will be able to read bar-coded supplies, determine dates of expiration, alert the homeowner about potential spoilage, and even communicate alternative menus to electronic display units or voice output devices. Smart appliances will augment the preparation of food by sensing the degree of cooking completion. Recycling in the kitchen will be accomplished with the assistance of trash sorting and compacting units. Water quality will be continuously monitored, as will all of the systems of the home, through on-call maintenance and service programs that will enhance the overall healthfulness of the home environment. Virtually all of this technology is at hand, and applications will soon emerge in the marketplace.

For older adults, the acquisition, monitoring, and use of medications is of great importance. Medication containment units will be available that will not only keep track of quantities, but will also read bar-coded information provided with the medication and provide appropriate reminders to the resident about medication intervals and dosage. Detoxification from drug interactions is a widespread problem among older adults. Technology applied to the appropriate control and dispensing of medications will be of great importance. Over time, these products can become part of a system of health care that is supported by technology and a new form of health care system that sustains individual independence, helps control the costs of health care through emphasis on awareness and preventative measures, and provides the appropriate interventions only when necessary.


Of the many assumptions made in predicting the future, one that is implied almost every time the future of technology is discussed is that technology is beneficial. Technology is benign, and the intention is to create benefit through the use of technology. But, is more of it better than less? In the end, older adults will choose what they want and inform the world about technology's viability and benefit. The unobtrusive characteristic of the technology to come is most appealing. However, its application and the interface with people are clearly significant. A house that is constantly attempting to communicate with its resident regardless of that individual's receptivity or desire to interact seems to be a future for domestic living that few would care to contemplate. A house that is a machine is also less than desirable. Thoughtful integration of smart and aware technologies that also manifest sensitivity about the user is the sort of quality that must be imparted to a living space. Currently, computers display none of this quality. Today, users are confronted with computer crashes that signal fatal errors and other admonitions as if the failings imbedded in the complexity of the machine are somehow the fault of the owner/operator. A house that is continually experiencing electronic crashes that have the user both mystified and worried will be unacceptable.

This phenomenon in computing systems is addressed in the book The Humane Interface (2000) by Jef Raskin. Raskin states that the future relationship of advanced computing to the novice user must be one of a much more friendly interface; one that does not present complexity in order to do the simplest operation. While the technology is at hand, or nearly within our grasp, to provide extended independence to older adults, the difficulty in creating this sophisticated home of the future does not lie in developing capacity, it is in making that capacity easily usable, with seamless transitions of interface from person to machine, machine to machine, and home to homeowner. Quality of life has always been the ultimate issue of aging. Americans will be spending more time in their lives as older adults than they will in any other time of life. The potential in the technological future of the home holds great promise for sustaining quality as well as maintaining independence.

Joseph A. Koncelik

See also Aging in Place; Home Adaptation and Equipment; Human Factors; Technology.


Battelle Memorial Institute. The Business of Innovation: Technology Forecasts. BMI, 1995. Available at www.battelle.org/forecasts/technology.stm.

Campbell, P. "Population Projections: States, 19952025." In Current Population Reports: Population Projections. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1997.

Covington, G. A., and Bruce, H. Access by Design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1997.

Dychtwald, K., and Flower, J. Age Wave. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990.

Hypponen, H., ed. Handbook on Inclusive Design of Telematics Applications. Helsinki, Finland: Stakes, 1999. Available at www.stakes.fi

Pirkl, J. J. Transgenerational Design: Products for an Aging Population. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1994.

Raskin, J. The Humane Interface. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 2000.

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