Internet Technology, The Aging Population's Freedom Fighter

Growing old doesn't necessarily have to mean leaving a beloved home. A growing market of technology-related services for senior citizens is helping them to keep their beloved independence.

Elderly-friendly technology? Getting there ...
Elderly-friendly technology? Getting there ...
Elisabeth Dostert

MUNICH — Albina B. is 75 years old and has gotten used to the small, flat, rectangular little plastic box on the dresser. Next to the numerous photographs of her family, it's barely noticeable. Framed photographs of weddings, birthdays and happy children. Albina is happy to have that little plastic box next to them. "It makes me feel secure."

The one on the dresser really is inconspicuous, as is the one attached to the window and a third plastic box in the bathroom. "We had to tell her to not pull the plug when she does the hoovering, though," says her 26-year-old grandson David Martin. The monitoring system wouldn't work without electricity.

They are simultaneously receivers and passive infrared detectors, registering the elderly woman's every movement — not just how and where she's moving but, more importantly if she's not moving. In that case, it would send a message to her daughter Annette Martin's smartphone. Albina, who doesn't want her last name to be published, also typically wears a distress signal device around her wrist, though it's currently on the dresser because she has guests. "I do wear it on occasion, if I don't feel too well," she says.

A growing market

Albina is perfectly well guarded, although her family would never use that term because it sounds too much like total control. They just want to protect her. "As much freedom as possible, as much protection as is necessary," is her daughter Annette's motto. Which is why the monitoring system only registers her movements but doesn't record images. There are no surveillance cameras in her apartment.

Albina's husband died three years ago, and she's been living on her own ever since. He was in need of care for quite a while, which is why the family installed a stairlift for him to reach the apartment on the first floor. Now even Albina uses the lift every once in a while to go downstairs to feed the chickens or to get out of the house and down to the village. At the moment, this is all the help she needs, or rather wants, to ease her daily routine.

She's lucky because her children live within 30 kilometers and are very nurturing. Albina even owns a car, a smart car, "which we bought because my husband could get in and out of it much more easily than with other cars." But she doesn't like to drive long distances anymore.

Germany is ill-prepared

Technology products for senior citizens are a growing market. In 1950, only 10% of the population was over 65. Now it's 20% in Germany and may rise to 30% by 2050, according to the Federal Institute of Population Research. The proportion of the very old — over 80 years old — is five times higher now, at 5%, than it was in 1950. This number is expected to triple by 2050. Every seventh German would be 70 years or older at that stage, and women would represent the majority.

"Germany is ill-prepared to deal with this," says Ursula Lehr, 84, board chair for the Federal Society of Senior Citizen Organizations (BAGSO). Surveys have shown that the majority of people want to live in their own homes for as long as possible. "Many of them won't be able to do so as their houses are of a time when architects were not concerned with the old-age-suitability of their designs," she says.

But times are changing. Construction directors and institutions such as the German Association of Gerontotechnology, the Berlin Institute of Social Research and companies such as the British corporation Tunstall are looking for solutions. Even medium-sized companies such as Martin Elktrotechnik, founded by Albina's daughter Annette and her husband, are looking for solutions. Since 2013, the Berlin College of Technology and Design has offered a masters degree in ambient assisted living (AAL). AAL refers to products and services designed to aid unassisted living. It is technology designed to adapt to a human being's needs.

Good design

There's still is a lot to be done. As BAGSO surveys have shown, the world in which more and more people of old age live is littered with obstacles. Some public buildings still have staircases without handrails or handrails that don't extend the full length of the stairwell. Some older people complain about the size of their prescription tablets, which are difficult to halve because of their reduced motor function.

And most distress signal devices are unsightly. "Why can't there be such a device in the form of an earclip?" asks Lehr. At a recent trade fair, one company offered cutlery with specifically designed grips that looked like corn cobs. "You would have to be very desperate to use such cutlery," argues Lehr. "Even older people like good and universal design" suitable for their age group. Much has improved over the last few years, "but it still leaves definite room for improvement, and a lot is still to be done." Lehr and her association are working on precisely that.

Products consistent with ability

The moniker "senior citizen" is not terribly well embraced by the people it is meant to describe. But at what point does someone become old? "The physical, mental and intellectual condition of an older person is not just dependent on their year of birth," says social psychologist Dieter Frey, professor of psychology and head of the LMU-Centre for Leadership and People Management. "A 75-year-old could have the physical and mental agility of a 40-year-old, a 40-year-old that of a 75-year-old," he argues.

That's why there are products that are not age specific to 70- or 80-year-olds but products that are consistent with the physical and intellectual abilities of the user, no matter what age.

The company Hiro designs elevators that can be installed without architectural intervention, indoors and outdoors. There are carpets with specific sensors that can register movements and falls. There are remote-controlled smartphones, keyboards with extra-large lettering and software such as Lever@Home to train your memory. Tablets enable people to control nearly everything within the household if it has been electronically linked to it. Many of the integral parts of AAL systems are based on information technology.

Expensive care for an aging society

Whenever Thomas Gerke is on vacation, he carries a silver suitcase with him containing a portable distress signal device, an electronic wristband and a smoke alarm. "In an emergency, a friendly employee from the call center will contact me to determine what has happened," Gerke explains.

He works for the British company Tunstall, which not only provides distress signal systems but also telehealthcare systems. With these systems, vital signs such as blood pressure, pulse and blood sugar can be measured and monitored. They even remind their owners to take these measurements or their medication on time. The results can be passed on via landline or pager to a call centen, health insurance company or mobile care service. Research has shown that the number and length of hospital stays and emergency visits can be reduced significantly with the use of telehealthcare systems.

Of course, it's not just a question of looking after patients but also of reducing the costs to health insurance providers in an aging society. So the line between loss and gain of personal freedom appears to be rather thin at times.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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