Three years ago, my father-in-law, now 96, traded his bicycle for a recumbent trike. Freed from the fear of falling and breaking a hip or shoulder as he had seen friends do, he continued his cycling adventures.
But the heavier cycle and different muscles needed to pedal made climbing hills a slow, tiring process. Concerned he wouldn’t have the energy to make it home, Dad planned routes with fewer hills. Then, last year, he decided to buy a motor for his trike. It doesn’t run all the time, but he can push a button and get an assist on climbs. He returned to many of his favorite rides. The world was once again open before him.
There’s no denying that as we age, our brains and bodies change. But thanks to technology and revolutionary ways of thinking, we can now enjoy a rich life well into our golden years.
That’s especially important given the growth of our senior population. The 2010 U.S. Census determined there were more than 40.3 million people age 65 and older, with those age 85 and older representing the fastest-growing group.
Maintaining mobility is an important part of retaining independence.
From canes to mountain trikes, finding ways to stay on the go has gotten easier in recent years.
As Dad discovered, even active seniors can benefit from getting creative to extend their mobility. A 2011 AARP article on the increasing popularity of recumbent trikes listed advantages, including stability, comfort, cardiovascular benefits, adaptability for riders with disabilities and a view of the landscape instead of the road.
For those who rely on their upper-body strength to get around, there are options for them to enjoy the outdoors, too. Mountain trikes – all-terrain, self-propelled wheelchairs – are perfect for exploring the outdoors, from muddy trails to the beach, or – as the name implies – climbing mountains.
Scooters have also grown in popularity.
“People bring their parents in because they want them to go with their grandkids to the park and zoo and experience what the family is experiencing and not have mom or dad feel like they are slowing them down,” says Tim Rutti, president of Valley Medical Supplies.
Tim says he helps seniors overcome their reticence in four major areas. When they learn that power scooters are seldom covered by Medicaid, they believe the cost will be prohibitive; but Tim says good scooters are available for $900 to $1,200. Most seniors also fear they will need to install a lift or ramp on their car to transport the scooter. But Tim says most of the scooters Valley Medical sells are portable and easily disassemble into pieces that weigh just 25 to 30 pounds. For those who worry that a disassembled battery-operated device may run out of power and strand them, Tim assures them that the new batteries “can go more miles than anyone could use on one charge.” The diverse styles and bright colors available are all options that don’t look like medical devices.
“They [seniors] walk in with a grimace,” says Tim. “But then they see all the styles and bright colors and understand they can become mobile with a new power mobility product but be discrete.”
At age 81, Shelly Petcher is a prime example of what a power scooter enables a senior to continue to enjoy. Shelly has taken his scooter to Israel twice, as well as to Japan, the Baltic countries, Scandinavia and Russia. In mid-April, he headed off on a cruise to Central America with stops in Belize, Mexico and Honduras, followed by a week in New Orleans.
“The only place I got stuck was in the Hermitage in Russia,” he says. Stopped at the base of a stairway with no elevator around, he got moving again when two American tourists picked up his scooter and carried it up the stairs. “I can go anywhere I want to go except stairs.”
“The scooter is what enables me to go on these trips,” Shelly says. “A walker could do it, but I run out of energy.”
According to a 2013 report from the University of California, San Francisco Disability Statistics Center, Shelly is not alone: Just over 6.8 million community-resident Americans use assistive devices to help them with mobility. This group comprises 1.7 million wheelchair or scooter riders and 6.1 million users of other mobility devices, such as canes, crutches and walkers.
Even walkers have advanced in recent years.
Tim says that the old-fashioned walkers with two wheels in front and two tennis balls on the back legs are “so yesteryear.” The new four-wheel rollators, or rolling walkers, are much more common. Many rollators also have a seat, bags, cup holders, cane holders and brakes.
A couple of months ago, I saw the futuristic play “Marjorie Prime,” which explored the intersection of science and aging. It was a deeply thought-provoking play. The technology in the play, an artificial version of Marjorie’s late husband who helps her grapple with memory loss and loneliness, clearly does not exist – yet.
On a much simpler level, smart speakers and personal assistants such as Amazon Echo and Alexa can provide interaction and memory aids to seniors.
While screen interaction is often considered detrimental as a substitute for in-person social interaction among children and teens, the use of social media and the internet seems to have the opposite effect on seniors.
A 2013 Pew Research Study on internet use reported: “[O]lder adults who use social networking sites such as Facebook are more likely to regularly socialize with friends, whether online, in person, or over the telephone, compared with seniors who are not social networking site users. Some 81% of older adults who use social networking sites say they socialize with others on a daily or near-daily basis.”
“… Among older adults who go online but do not use social networking sites, that figure is 71%; and for those who are not online at all, it is 63%.”
Many senior facilities provide Wi-Fi, public computers and tech support to help their residents reap those benefits.
At Andara in Scottsdale, Program Director Jill Taylor sets aside time on Saturdays to meet with residents and help them learn to use their smartphones, tablets or laptops to connect with family or navigate the internet.
The Village at Ocotillo in Chandler offers monthly tech classes on different applications. “Each month, we focus on something else – Facebook, iPhones, cameras or Skype,” says Program Director Kim Tacy. “Most residents are interested in their iPhones and how to use them and navigate them.”
Maravilla Scottsdale offers classes such as Facebook 101 and one-on-one help for residents in both the independent living and assisted living residences. Assisted living residents who want to Skype with distant family members can schedule a time with Program Director Erin Masterson, who will help coordinate a Skype session. “Many residents have their own cell phones and want to FaceTime with their grandkids but don’t know how; we can assist them with that as well,” she says.
A 2015 blog post from McMaster University in Canada found that virtual reality gaming systems like Nintendo Wii provide both entertainment and opportunities for physical activity. The post noted that evidence from research studies shows that Wii-based training is comparable to other exercise programs for improving balance in older adults, which can reduce the risk of falling.
Wii controllers respond to real body movements, encouraging low-impact motion. Many of the games can be played by people with varying degrees of mobility.
Weekly Wii bowling tournaments are on the calendar at Andara and Maravilla Scottsdale. At Maravilla, residents also enjoy a variety of games and activities such as table tennis, yoga, aerobics or even skiing on the Wii system. Residents at The Village at Ocotillo enjoy Wii bowling and tennis.
There’s no question that technology is changing how we age. Being willing to adapt and use technology creatively helps us hold onto the passions, activities and connections that make us who we are.