Honghao Deng headshot
Honghao Deng
Honghao Deng headshot
Honghao Deng

There’s been a lot of interest in a study by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. Based on in-depth research, the study finds that the United States is not currently prepared to provide proper housing and care for the growing population of aging adults.

The cost of housing and care, compounded by insufficient government assistance, will force older adults to rely on family and friends for care. In an ideal scenario, there will be enough staff in long-term care facilities to address the growing older population. In countries where the older population has been growing faster than in the United States, however, namely, Japan and South Korea, there are lessons to be learned. One issue that is on the rise is the growing prevalence of “lonely deaths.”

What’s driving lonely deaths

Lonely deaths, a.k.a. “kodokushi” in Japan and “godoksa” in South Korea, happen when a person dies alone and remains undiscovered for a long period of time. The discovery usually is due to a neighbor complaining about the odor. This is assuming the deceased person was living in closely clustered housing or a multi-unit dwelling, not in a specialized care facility.

Another path to discovery is when a utilities provider contacts the building manager because the funds for automatic bank withdrawals have dried up.

The cost of discovery and clean-up of lonely deaths often falls to the landlord if family can’t be located. Meanwhile, the unit is temporarily unavailable to rent, and other tenants can explore legal action due to residing near a biohazard site.

For older adults living alone without neighbors close by, many families rely on cameras, wristbands and buzzers to press in an emergency. Yet cameras compromise privacy, wristbands are a tethering device, and buzzers assume the person is able to signal for help.

Those technologies also assume that the aging adult has a family that can purchase and install those tools. Even if the tools were provided at no cost, they are designed to anticipate an accident or a natural death. Yet this scenario, too, is becoming less common.

For example, in South Korea, a rise in godoksa among middle-aged men was the result of suicide driven by several factors including gaps in social welfare, poverty and social isolation. Those are global issues.

When it comes to assisted living communities and other types long-term care facilities, a high demand already exists. Meanwhile, the industry continues to grapple with a severe labor shortage. This shortage puts residents at risk and raises the stakes for potential compliance violations by the provider.

The impact on the workforce and public health

Beyond community staffing issues, an increasingly older population also will affect the larger workforce. Younger family members will need to carve time out of their workday to care for older family members and potentially fill in the gap due to the senior living and care workforce shortage.

Further, the housing issue can quickly become a public health crisis, as older adults without a place to go and sufficient healthcare may turn to abandoned buildings and the streets for shelter. Adding to the potential public health crisis is the risk of dementia, which increases with age, roughly doubling every five years, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.

Using AI for privacy and proactive safety

The eye-opening housing report from Harvard presents an opportunity to take action now. As a society, we all need to prepare for the significant demographic shift that is coming over the next few years.

Recent advances in artificial intelligence, or AI, offer a way to help prevent lonely deaths and proactively identify potential long-term issues. Some examples include motion sensors and devices to monitor gas and electricity usage. Those options may be effective, but they can easily send false alarms, not to mention the potential lag time in discovering the deceased.  

Another approach is based on the fusion of AI and body heat sensing technology. This combination, delivered in the form of sensors, can detect subtle changes in a person’s movement. Since they’re based on body heat, there’s no need to know who is in the space. The sensor only needs to understand human movement and signal whether there are people in the space and whether they are moving.

By removing the need to physically connect a device to a person or use a camera to watch them, this use of AI provides privacy and safety. And it’s not just to prevent lonely deaths.

The ability to detect subtle changes in body movements creates an opportunity to get ahead of potential health issues. For example, monitoring a person’s gait speed and walking distance can lead to earlier diagnoses of frailty and the potential for falls. Having this information allows people to make changes in their lifestyle and have time to properly plan for future living arrangements.

Another benefit to this approach is the ability to change the hourly check-in protocol in long-term care facilities. When AI and body heat sensing monitoring provides alerts, it can help close staffing gaps by allowing employees to focus only on the most critical issues.

As society is wired to crave longevity, time is not on our side when it comes to properly preparing for the inevitable future when one in six adults will be aged more than 60 years in 2030. Although AI offers ways to address and prevent some issues, sweeping changes still are necessary. There is much to be gained from understanding how other countries are managing a steady increase in their aging population. This information, along with embracing advances in age tech for housing and staffing, can make a big difference in adjusting to the shifting demographics.

Honghao Deng is a computational designer, entrepreneur and CEO and co-founder of AI platform Butlr. In his previous role, he was a researcher at City Science Group, MIT Media Lab. He earned a Master of Design Technology degree with distinction at Harvard University.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living marketplace column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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