For 40 years, Vicky and Kyle have lived in their suburban home. The house is where they’ve collected a lifetime of memories. Every square foot of their three-bedroom split-level is a monument to their shared life’s work. But the aging couple now finds this symbol of their shared success is becoming a challenge.
Vicky and Kyle’s unspoken strategy is divide and conquer. Kyle takes the lead on yard work, car maintenance and appliance repairs. He can still do most jobs around the house. But certain tasks, like seasonally hauling out the ladder to change the batteries of the dozen smoke alarms scattered throughout the house, have gone from rituals to major chores.
Vicky is effectively the home’s chief purchasing officer, taking charge of grocery and pharmacy shopping. She takes the lead in arranging doctor’s appointments and helping Kyle maintain a diet and medication regimen to manage his diabetes. Diagnosed with macular degeneration, she does most errands during the day as driving at night has become more difficult.
Vicky has an idea of the challenges ahead. While caring for her parents, she saw how all the big and little tasks that are required if one is to live at home independently can eventually become unmanageable. Neither Vicky nor Kyle is certain how long they can keep it up.
They are not alone. According to an AARP survey, 77% of adults over 50 would like to stay in their current homes as they age. However, only 46% believe they will be able to do so.
How can older adults like Vicky and Kyle solve for what amounts to a constellation of challenges in maintaining their homes and their independence? The solution probably won’t come in the form of a singular moonshot (e.g., a discovery of the Fountain of Youth), but rather as a battery of small innovations working together to accomplish something greater.
What my MIT AgeLab colleague Chaiwoo Lee and I imagine is a convergence of sensor, communication and AI technologies that transform the home into a platform of services to keep us connected, provide convenience and deliver care as we age.
The growing intelligence of everyday digitized objects has made it possible for everything from kitchen appliances to home heating systems to manage tasks by themselves. Many of these products are well-known: the Nest thermostat, the internet-enabled refrigerator, smart televisions, home-monitoring systems, even the humble Roomba. While automation of home security and entertainment is not new, the introduction of AI-based smart speakers, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, has made connecting and controlling various technologies throughout the home far easier for people of all ages. These smart “hubs” are a bedrock for future connected homes.
Read: How to find the best place for you to retire
Smart devices alone do not transform the home into a service platform. It is the combination of these devices along with a growing number of on-demand service providers that is creating an ecosystem of services that will support the demands of retirees like Kyle and Vicky who wish to stay in their homes.
Kyle’s home-maintenance routine will be far easier with home systems that not only monitor the home but automatically connect to trusted service providers. Internet-of-things company Notion, for example, offers a multisensor system that can detect everything from air temperature to water leaks. Major home insurers are now offering insurance discounts for homeowners who use such systems.
While detecting a leak is important, fixing it is the hard part. Notion has gone further in teaming up with Home Advisor, a professional pre-screening company for repair services, so that once a leak is detected the homeowner is then connected to an available plumber. Intelligent device-plus-service transforms a simple sensor into a comprehensive home service.
The home is also evolving as a platform for connected health care. AI-enabled devices and services help people manage medical conditions, such as Kyle with his diabetes, as well as detect changes that might predict a health event.
The Pria home companion from Black & Decker combines a smart medication manager with communication technologies that allow family members to remotely monitor meds, set health reminders and video chat with a distant loved one.
Telehealth and teletherapy providers like Teladoc are now providing home video consultations with physicians for acute conditions such as the flu and even behavioral health issues such as depression. Philips recently announced Sonicare Teledentistry, a service that enables users to share their brushing data remotely with a dentist.
In addition to connecting residents with care providers, the home can also be an active health and safety monitor. MIT startup Emerald is introducing fall-detection and health-measuring technology that doesn’t require users to wear a pendant or sensor. Instead, Emerald monitors activities and detects changes in behavior, such as a lack of movement or a change in gait, that predict the probability of a fall.
Taken together, these technologies could help Kyle and Vicky live better as they age and remain in their home longer. But such a sweeping array of devices also presents new questions and responsibilities for their users, not to mention for the companies hoping to make a profit by selling them.
How will the home-as-service be marketed, sold and maintained? These are the questions that have scarcely been answered even as the internet-of-things balloons as a product category. Few people will want to purchase and integrate these devices and services one function at a time. Consumers may find major value in the bundling of technologies and services that might at first glance seem worlds apart. The question is what kind of businesses would be best suited to function as providers and brands for an expansive home technology suite.
Tech behemoths like Amazon and Google appear as the most capable players, given their resources and expansive presence, but others may arise. Home insurers could get into the business not only of insuring against risk but selling tools that reduce or prevent risk. Communications companies such as cable and wireless providers, utilities and even delivery companies like UPS may find new opportunities in bundling technologies and services together as branded platforms. Best Buy’s introduction of new services and technologies to support family caregivers may be seen as the beginning of a new service-industry category of home logistics for an aging marketplace.
Another major advantage for Best Buy in this area would be its well-known Geek Squad technical support service, which could address the problems of installation and maintenance for a complicated array of technologies. The fact that these devices would occupy the intimate space of the home makes their reliability and maintenance even more important. Few people, irrespective of age, will remain even-keeled when they discover that their smart toilet is on the fritz, and they will prize assistance rendered efficiently and effectively. A provider that commits to playing a role in the installation and ongoing support of their products will have a leg up on the competition.
A final question returns us to the older buyers and users who would benefit most from a home service platform: How will retirees like Kyle and Vicky be able to afford this? Saving for retirement has always involved accounting for big-ticket costs such as housing and health care. Technology-enabled services loom as a new and heretofore unaccounted-for retirement expense. Aging baby boomers have come to believe that Wi-Fi connectivity is a basic need. Soon, tech services that were once considered a convenience will be vital to care and a necessary cost of retiring well.
That cost may prove to be a moving target. It’s hard enough to predict what technologies will be available in the next few decades, without having to forecast what their prices will be. Potentially high costs may also present an equity issue as far as the less affluent being able to afford vital tools for aging well.
Given the widespread desire among older adults to age in place, many people will consider the expense to be worth it. The internet has made our lives easier in all sorts of ways; and transforming the home into a service platform — not to mention a more livable place — appears to be the logical next step.
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