Assistive Technologies for Aging Gracefully.

Written by Dennis Kappen


The growing population of baby boomers leads to serious challenges in the method of coping up with the challenges of aging. Modern advancements in medicine have resulted in providing the longevity but at the same time there seems to be no evidence of an eternal fountain of youth as a panacea for ailments that comes along with aging.  Decline in cognitive abilities, challenges in physical abilities, decline in motor skills, emotional loneliness, mental distress and social isolation are a few of the challenges facing the aging population (Czaja et al., 2008). This demographic has been neglected over time in terms of understanding their needs and their adaptability to information systems and technology. This paper explores the challenges faced in integrating technology towards assistive care.

Reference Information

Baecker, R. M., Moffatt, K., & Massimi, M. (2012). Technologies for Aging Gracefully. Interactions, 32–36.


The paper starts off with the stark reality that “the world is aging”. While longevity enhanced by modern medicine is a desirable aspect of life, with aging comes the challenges of sensory, motor, cognitive and social isolation.  Cognitive and physical challenges of older adults define the limitations and opportunities for them to participate in leisurely and recreational activities. Most usability studies have been conducted with younger adults, and a study of the limitations and abilities of older adults would help develop usability criteria for designing games for this demographic. Technology must enhance the lifestyle of older adults as a means to provide them with freedom, mobility and interdependence on one another in a social group. There should not be any discrimination in the use and experience of devices and technology for older adults and persons with disabilities. The concept of a barrier free living environment needs to be extended to the field of leisurely activities, personal entertainment and social interaction. The author formed Technologies for Aging Gracefully lab (TAGlab) in 2009 with the aim of enabling full participation in society by individuals with special needs i.e. peole afflicted with Alzhimer’s Disease (AD), mild cognitive impairment (MCI), amnesia, aphasia, strokes, multiple sclerosis (MS) or vision loss. In the hierarchy of human needs as defined by Maslow, TAGlab focused its attention on the top three needs i.e. the love or social needs, esteem needs and self actualization needs.


The authors framed the relevance of technology in relation to the improvement of lives of senior citizens using Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. The following table indicates the work done by the authors and others in the realm of assistive technologies for the enhancement of the lifestyle of older adults.

Needs Technological work done Current and Future Potential
Physiological   needs Health   information websites; health-support social media Pros: Using the web   to access information about health, sharing their experiences for the benefit   of others. Enables senior citizens to be more knowledgeable and informed healthy   lifestyle.Cons: Relevance of   the data with personal health conditions, improper understanding of data,   and, challenges of interpreting the information wrongly posing a huge problem   for doctors and health-care workers.
Safety   needs Use   of signaling devices to indicate the event of an older person falling and   unable to get up.Use   of AI systems to automatically determine if a person has fallen. (FOV and   wide angle lenses)

Embedded   assessment technologies to provide early detection /continuous monitoring of   health conditions. (wristwatch detecting changes in cognitive function)

Pros: Life saving   devicesCons: People may forget   to carry these devices on their person.
Love   needs Grandparents   and  children chat via Skype   (intergenerational interactions)Technology   bridging gaps across physical and social distance.

TAGlabs   projects: strengthening the interaction bonds between community family and   friends

TableTalk   Poker: Connecting peers – social fulfillment.

Families   in Touch: a digital communication picture frame and web-portal: helping   individuals in isolation due to pain, hospitalization and immobility.

BeSupp:   Bereavement support.

Establishing   meaningful connections across generations: Design opportunities linking   grandparents and grand children.

Family   history connections as inspirations for connecting between intergenerational populations.

Pros: Engaging inter-generational   conversations  leading to happiness,   and a feeling of belongingnessOvercoming   loneliness, social connections, connecting family and friends.

Cons: maintaining   topics of common interest is a challenge

Collaborating   on projects can be challenging due to lack of common interest topics.

Esteem   Needs Empowering   autonomy: maintaining the need for independence inspite of age related   changes:  cognitive decline, physical   and motor disabilities.Friend   Forecaster: helping people remember names of people using ones social media   databases

MyVoice:   enabling people with anomic aphasia to get help with words and phrases based   on location triggers. This could also be used by children with communication difficulties.

ALLT:   talking e-book, designed for people with impaired vision.

TANGRA:   controlled trials over the internet to determine the effectiveness of   brain-fitness games and exercises.

Pros: Enabling   Independence, and providing aids to help overcome challenges of cognitive   declineEnabling   memory triggers

Cons: these   technologies may need training and methods to remember steps for usage of the   product.

Self   Actualization Needs Using   digital media: Projects to reminisce and reflect on past and present   experiences to maintain ones identityMultimedia   biographies (lifelogging) for AD and MCI to trigger episodic memory in   individuals. Pros: Inspirations   from past experiences helps with the purpose of a “calling”Enables   psychosocial benefits

Cons: Ability to   use these technologies itself could be a challenge. Need for monitoring the   individuals using the technologies could also be a challenge.

The paper is well structured and the authors categorize the above technologies into a taxonomical research framework based on Maslow’s needs hierarchy. They argue that the goals of the technologies mentioned could be diagnostic, assistive, rehabilitative or health-preserving.

While the technologies mentioned above focuses on the work of TAGlabs in the field of aging gracefully, the authors have only given a few references about the use of similar technologies by many other researchers.  It would have been helpful to have the work done by many researchers outside of TAGlabs detailed under this taxonomical research framework. This could have given us an idea about the direction in which researchers’ were focusing their attention to i.e. diagnostic, assistive, rehabilitative or health-preserving


Aging is a reality of life  and brings with it challenges related to aging. Technology may not be the panacea for age related issues; however, the application of technology in enhancing the lifestyle of senior citizens is a tremendous possibility.  Enhancing the lifestyle of older adults also means providing them with the opportunity to be self-reliant, increased feeling of self-worth and identity. It is critical for human interaction designers to work across multi-disciplinary and cross-functional disciplines to develop technology that could be applied towards creating systems enhancing older adults’ lifestyle.

Additional References

S. J. Czaja and C. C. Lee. Information Technology and Older Adults. In The Human Computer Interaction Handbook, A.Sears and J. A. Jacko, Eds. New York, New York, USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2008.

Ijsselsteijn, W., Nap, H. H., de Kort, Y., & Poels, K. (2007). Digital game design for elderly users. Proceedings of the 2007 conference on Future Play – Future Play  ’07, 17.