This post originally appeared on TheGerontechnologist. It has been edited to match Generations Today style.
Mobility and transportation are among the biggest challenges of aging. Mobility is defined as “the ability to move or be moved freely and easily” and transportation is defined as “the action of transporting someone or something.” Mobility challenges are extremely common for older adults. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, two-thirds of older Americans said they had difficulty in walking or climbing. With public transport that is either inaccessible or non-existent, mobility and transportation are closely intertwined.
Not being able to move freely and easily negatively impacts one’s ability to perform basic activities of daily living independently, in and outside the home. This includes walking to and from the bus stop and getting on and off of a bus.
In many places in the United States and all over the world, losing one’s ability to drive means losing a big part of one’s independence, and requires assistance to fulfill your basic human needs—such as getting food and healthcare. Social connections, which are extremely important to people of all ages, can be severed simply because people aren’t able to independently get to where they used to volunteer or meet with friends.
Driving Substitutions Not Always Older Adult Friendly
In recent years, tech-enabled transportation solutions such as ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft have become ubiquitous, but are they accessible to older adults? Not necessarily.
To use ride-hailing services, one needs to own a smartphone, know how to download apps and be able to trust those ride-hailing apps with credit card information. And while smartphone ownership and use among older adults is steadily increasing year over year, most older adults are not confident that what they do online remains private—which is a major barrier for adoption of such apps.
Services like GoGoGrandparent enable people to order an Uber or Lyft using a simple phone call, which is a great step forward, but can older adults with mobility impairments use them safely? Can they get out of the house and into the car without any assistance? Will they be able to cross a busy intersection if their driver is waiting for them at the northeast corner instead of at the southwest corner?
Drivers are trained to provide assisted transportation to older adults, which includes helping riders out the door and into the car.
While popular ride-hailing services that are mostly app-based and provide curb-to-curb transportation that might not be the best solution for many older adults, there are ride-hailing services designed to meet everyone’s needs. Onward rides is one of them—their drivers are trained to provide assisted transportation to older adults, which includes helping riders out the door and into the car, and in some cases, waiting along with them as they run errands or visit the doctor, and then taking them back home (to their door) safely. Silver Ride is another such service, and both of these services also provide medical transportation. Transportation is also one of the services Papa provides.
The future, however, lies in autonomous vehicles. Tesla, which is one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world, already has cars with a built-in driver assistance system they call “AutoPilot,” and will one day provide full autonomous driving capabilities. Despite recent incidents where drivers weren't acting as backup to the current AutoPilot system in Teslas and crashed, one can assume that in the fully autonomous version, Tesla’s (and other car manufacturers) autonomous driving capabilities will surpass those of human drivers.
Other big manufacturers, as well as less-familiar companies like May Mobility—also are working on autonomous transportation solutions. It has been reported that senior living communities have become a testing ground for autonomous cars, which makes a lot of sense considering that many residents might no longer be able to drive themselves safely.
Mobility Aids Improving
When it comes to mobility, mobility aids have gotten a much-needed upgrade in recent years. Some of the more innovative mobility aids are commercially available, like this robotic wheelchair. Some, like Seismic’s powered clothing, are still under development and will eventually solve many of the micro-challenges that comprise the larger mobility and transportation challenge.
One Canadian company, Braze mobility, is leading the charge in helping those who need a wheelchair navigate busy urban environments. They have developed a revolutionary set of sensors, which can be used on any wheelchair and provide audio, visual and vibration feedback when obstacles are nearby. In an interview with CABHI, Pooja Viswanathan, the company’s founder and CEO, said, “there’s already so much stigma about not being able to drive a wheelchair properly—which isn’t fair to say because it’s actually very hard to do. Our sensors provide an opportunity to raise awareness about the issues wheelchair users face so they can know they’re not alone.”
I believe this last sentence is the “why” behind many of the age-tech companies that have been founded in recent years. They’re not only here to solve real problems for real people, but also, to make sure elders are not left behind in all of this wonderful tech-driven progress we’re experiencing, and that they know they are not alone.
Keren Etkin is a gerontologist, an entrepreneur and the author of “The Age Tech Revolution” (working title), which is scheduled to be published in December, 2021. She founded TheGerontechnologist.com, a website that covers the global age-tech ecosystem, and the Age Tech Academy, an education platform for those looking to gain a deeper understanding of age tech, and co-founded Sensi.Ai.