Updated – 9/3/2022
Reviewed By: Deidre Sommerer, LPN, MS, CMC, CDP.

When you hear the term “healthy aging,” you probably think about maintaining your physical condition as you get older. However, according to researchers from Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, the CDC and other organizations, physical condition is only one aspect of healthy aging. You also need to preserve your mental health and continue getting plenty of social engagement. Unfortunately, age-related changes can make it difficult to perform activities of daily living and socialize with others, leading to depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. If you have a chronic medical condition, these changes may be even more pronounced, resulting in social isolation and loneliness. Many seniors also worry about the possibility of losing their independence. Although physical changes can create some new challenges, the use of assistive technology (AT) may help seniors overcome many of these issues. Assistive technology is any item that makes tasks easier for individuals with physical and cognitive impairments. Some forms of AT are highly complex, requiring computer software, operating systems and/or robotic components to work. Other types, such as canes and walkers, are much simpler. This guide provides a detailed overview of the assistive technology available to help seniors maintain their independence and quality of life. You’ll also find a list of resources that may help you secure funding for some of the more expensive pieces of AT equipment.

Health Changes That Occur With Age

Your body goes through many changes as you age. Some are just a normal part of the aging process, such as reduced flexibility and more difficulty maintaining your balance. Other changes occur due to chronic health conditions. For example, arthritis can cause pain, stiffness and reduced range of motion, making it difficult to walk, grasp small objects, get up from a seated position or sit comfortably on your favorite piece of furniture. Some medications also cause side effects that can interfere with normal functioning. Below are some common challenges associated with getting older.

Arthritis

Arthritis is a disease or disorder that causes the joints to become inflamed. This inflammation causes stiffness, swelling and pain, which can interfere with everyday activities. Some types of arthritis are autoimmune disorders, which develop when the immune system can’t distinguish healthy from harmful tissue. This causes the immune system to attack the joints, resulting in irreversible damage. Depending on which joints are affected, seniors with arthritis may have difficulty with these activities:

  • Walking
  • Bending over
  • Grasping objects
  • Lifting the arms
  • Reaching for high objects

Cognitive Decline

Cognition is the ability to make decisions, remember things that happened in the past and learn new things. Cognitive decline refers to confusion or memory loss that occurs over time. It’s normal to be forgetful once in a while, but persistent forgetfulness and confusion may be symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or another neurological condition. Confusion and forgetfulness can interfere with the ability to do many tasks, including the following:

  • Following recipes
  • Cleaning the house
  • Remembering to take medications
  • Keeping track of keys, purses and other items
  • Following directions/reading maps
  • Performing grooming activities

Poor Balance

In seniors, balance disorders often develop due to problems with the inner ear. Poor balance can also be caused by stroke, head injuries, low blood pressure and other conditions that result in dizziness. Seniors with poor balance have an increased risk of falls and may have difficulty with these tasks:

  • Walking
  • Using stairs
  • Reaching items stored on high shelves
  • Bending over to pick up items from the floor

Frailty

Frailty syndrome refers to functional impairments involving multiple parts of the body. It typically causes weight loss, poor endurance, reduced stamina and a general lack of fitness. The syndrome is especially common in seniors who have two or more chronic health conditions. Those with frailty syndrome may have difficulty with the following:

  • Walking
  • Using the stairs
  • Toileting
  • Showering/bathing
  • Performing household chores

Hearing Loss

Many seniors experience hearing loss due to long-term noise exposure, fluid buildup or an accumulation of earwax that blocks sounds from being delivered to the inner ear. It’s also associated with diabetes, stroke, brain injuries, heart conditions and infections. Hearing loss sometimes interferes with the following activities:

  • Watching television
  • Listening to audiobooks
  • Having conversations
  • Enjoying live or recorded music

Reduced Range of Motion

Reduced range of motion is common in older adults, mostly due to the changes in flexibility that occur with aging. It may also be related to arthritis, pain, tight muscles, injuries or living a sedentary lifestyle. If you have reduced range of motion, you may find it a little harder to complete tasks you once considered easy, such as:

  • Cooking
  • Walking outdoors
  • Taking a shower
  • Getting dressed

Vision Loss

As you age, you’re more likely to develop eye problems that affect your vision. Cataracts are extremely common, affecting about half of all Americans by the time they turn 75. Seniors may also develop age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, making it more difficult to see. If you have vision loss, it may be more difficult to perform these activities:

  • Reading
  • Watching television
  • Driving
  • Cooking
  • Cleaning
  • Using a computer or tablet
  • Dialing the telephone

Assistive Technology Categories

Assistive technology covers several categories, so it’s possible to find devices to help with communication difficulties, vision problems and other challenges associated with aging or chronic health problems. Most items fall into one of the five categories listed below.

Category

Purpose

Examples

Communication tools

Communication tools make it easier for seniors to express themselves and may help with writing, speaking or hearing.

  • Communication boards
  • Hearing aids
  • Dictation software
  • Voice output devices
  • Signaling devices/alert systems
  • Magnifiers

Daily living aids

Daily living aids make it easier to perform daily activities of living, such as grooming, showering and toileting.

  • Key turners
  • Light switch extenders
  • Automated medication dispensers
  • Adaptive drinking devices and utensils
  • Button hooks

Learning tools

Learning tools help those with cognitive decline prevent their symptoms from worsening. They can also help seniors learn more about the world around them.

  • Brain training games
  • Cognitive training software

Mobility aids

Mobility aids make it easier for seniors to move around their homes and communities.

  • Grab bars
  • Walkers
  • Scooters
  • Canes
  • Wheelchairs

Vocational (job) tools

For seniors who are still working, vocational tools can make it easier to type, read documents and perform other job-related tasks.

  • Currency identifiers
  • Color identifiers
  • Assistive keyboards
  • Assistive listening systems

How To Choose Assistive Technology To Meet Your Needs

Assistive technology can make it easier to perform tasks independently and stay connected with your loved ones, but it’s important to select items that match your needs. Each time you buy an assistive device, follow these steps to make sure the item fits your lifestyle and your budget.

  • Focus on tasks you perform regularly: It might be nice to have assistive technology to help with every task, but many seniors live on fixed incomes and need to make their selections carefully. For the greatest return on investment, the items you buy should be the ones you’ll use most frequently. If you have difficulty cooking, doing dishes, getting dressed, grooming yourself or performing related activities, look for assistive technology that can help with these daily tasks first.
  • Assess your environment: Go into each room of your home and look around to determine which areas present the greatest challenges when it comes to living independently. You may find it difficult to get in and out of the shower because you have poor balance, or maybe you can’t turn off the living room light because the switch is too high to reach from your wheelchair.
  • Request a demo: High-tech devices can be costly, so it’s important to understand how they work and verify that they have the features you need before you make a purchase. Before buying assistive technology, ask for a demonstration. As you watch someone else operate the device, you may notice missing features or some components that would be difficult for you to operate.
  • Take the item for a test drive: You wouldn’t buy a car without taking a test drive first, so there’s no reason to invest in assistive technology without trying it out beforehand. Check the item to make sure it’s sturdy, fits your body (if applicable) and has all the features the vendor advertised. If the device is computerized, it’s also a good time to make sure you can press the buttons easily and work all the main features without assistance.
  • Request training or implementation assistance: Once you buy a device, you need to implement it into your lifestyle. For some seniors, this implementation process is difficult, especially if time has passed since you saw the product demo. Some vendors offer training or post-purchase support to ensure you can use their assistive technology safely. If your vendor doesn’t offer this type of assistance, contact your local senior organization to find out if training is available or if they can refer you to a provider.
  • Monitor the situation: When you start using the device, note how much of an impact it has on your life. Do you feel more confident and independent? Is the device helping you do things you weren’t able to do before? Keep these questions in mind. If the item is difficult to use, doesn’t work as promised or simply isn’t a great fit for your needs, you may need to return it.

Getting Financial Assistance To Pay for Assistive Technology

Although the use of assistive technology has many potential benefits for older adults, some seniors avoid using these items due to concerns over how much they cost, especially if they lack health coverage or have limited financial resources. Health insurance covers some types of assistive technology, but only items that are considered medically necessary. There may also be copays or other out-of-pocket costs associated with using health insurance to buy assistive devices. Below are some government agencies and private organizations that may cover the cost of assistive technology for eligible individuals.

Private Funding Sources

Funding Source

Description

Covered Items

Eligibility Guidelines

Application Instructions

Contact Information

Easterseals

Easterseals is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities access the services they need. Some chapters offer loans or grants to help pay for assistive technology.

Covered items may include:

  • Computers
  • Environmental control units
  • Accessible vehicles
  • Home modifications
  • Hearing aids
  • Braille equipment

Funding is available for applicants with documented disabilities. Each Easterseals chapter may have additional requirements.

Contact your local Easterseals chapter. Enter your ZIP code on the main Easterseals website to find a chapter in your area.

easterseals.com

UCP Bellows Fund

United Cerebral Palsy operates the Bellows Fund, which provides funding to affiliate organizations. These organizations distribute their allotted funds to individuals who need assistive technology.

The UCP Bellows Fund provides funding for most types of assistive technology. Funds can also be used to pay for repairs to assistive devices.

To receive funds from a UPC affiliate, you must have a documented disability and demonstrate financial need.

Use the UCP affiliate directory to locate an affiliate in your area. The affiliate must submit the application to UCP on your behalf.

ucp.org

Muscular Dystrophy Association

MDA offers several programs to help people with muscular dystrophy and other neuromuscular disorders. It also funds research and engages in political advocacy on behalf of individuals with muscular dystrophy.

MDA doesn’t provide direct funding, but it has partnered with the Permobil Foundation to make wheelchairs available to its clients.

You must demonstrate financial need and provide a letter from a doctor or physical therapist indicating that it’s medically necessary for you to get a wheelchair.

Fill out the online application on the Permobil Foundation website.

mda.org

Multiple Sclerosis Foundation

The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation funds MS-related research and administers programs to help people with MS enjoy improved quality of life.

  • Cooling accessories
  • Mobility aids
  • Communication devices
  • Hearing aids
  • Vision aids
  • Computer aids

You must demonstrate financial need and provide confirmation from your doctor or another health care provider that you have a need for assistive technology.

Download a copy of the printable application or fill out the online application

msfocus.org

Private Health Coverage

Private health insurance covers a wide range of health-related services.

  • Wheelchairs
  • Walkers
  • Canes
  • Adjustable hospital beds

The eligibility requirements depend on the company that provides your health coverage. There may be coverage limits, coinsurance requirements or other terms that affect your ability to acquire assistive technology.

Check with your health insurance company if you have questions about coverage for assistive technology.

Contact your health insurance company.

Government Funding Sources

Funding Source

Description

Covered Items

Eligibility Guidelines

Application Instructions

Contact Information

Medicaid

Medicaid is a joint effort between state governments and the federal government to ensure Americans with limited financial resources have access to health care.

  • Wheelchairs
  • Canes
  • Walkers
  • Prosthetics

To qualify for Medicaid, you must meet your state’s income and asset limits. You must also be a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.

Contact your state Medicaid agency for application instructions. Use the Medicaid agency directory to find the contact information for your state.

medicaid.gov

Medicare

Medicare gives older adults access to health coverage. It’s also available to some younger adults with disabilities.

  • Adjustable hospital beds
  • Canes
  • Walkers
  • Wheelchairs

You must be at least 65 years old or have a qualifying disability. You must also be a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.

If you’re receiving retirement benefits from the Railroad Retirement Board or Social Security Administration, you may qualify for automatic enrollment. Otherwise, apply online on the Social Security website.

medicare.gov

Tips for Qualifying for Funding

Once you identify potential funding opportunities, there are a few ways to improve your chances of being approved:

  • Obtain a letter of medical necessity: Some of the above organizations require applicants to prove that they have a medical need for assistive technology. You can speed up the application process by asking your doctor or another licensed medical professional to write you a letter of medical necessity. The letter should contain your full name, date of birth, diagnosis and the severity of your condition. If possible, your health care provider should also explain how assistive technology will help you overcome the challenges associated with your diagnosis.
  • Request a needs assessment: You have a better chance of qualifying for funding if you can show the organization that assistive technology will improve your life. A needs assessment can help you determine what features you need and how they will help you be more independent. During this assessment, a social worker, registered nurse or other medical professional will review your health history and ask you about how your medical condition affects your ability to carry out everyday tasks. Based on your answers, they may recommend assistive technology that has visual components, internet access, symbols, words or other features to help you overcome age-related challenges.
  • Demonstrate your use of assistive technology: Some organizations receive thousands of applications for a limited amount of funds. One way to set yourself apart is to provide visual evidence of how assistive technology can help you stay engaged and maintain your independence. For example, you may want to create a short video showing how much effort it takes you to grasp objects compared with how much easier it is when you’re using assistive technology.
  • Be prepared to provide proof of financial need: Many organizations only provide funds to individuals with a demonstrated financial need. To verify your need, you may be asked to provide tax returns, bank statements and other financial documents. Gather these documents ahead of time so you’re prepared to meet the verification requirements when you apply.

Assistive Technology Directory

The directory below describes some common assistive technology devices in each category and explains how they can help seniors with a variety of age-related changes. Before you start shopping for assistive technology, consult this directory to learn more about each type of item.

Communication Tools

These tools come in many forms, from simple communication boards to high-tech devices that convert text into speech. These tools make it easier to express yourself when you have difficulty writing, reading, speaking or hearing. Some devices cost less than $100, while others range from $200 to $7,000 depending on their complexity. Communication tools are especially helpful for seniors with multiple sclerosis, ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or any medical condition that weakens the throat muscles, makes it difficult to hold a writing utensil or results in hearing or vision impairment.

Item

Purpose

Captioning devices

Captioning devices help seniors with hearing difficulties. These devices turn spoken words into text that someone with hearing loss can read.

Communication boards

Communication boards make it possible for seniors with speech problems to communicate with other people. Instead of speaking, an individual with a communication board points to words or symbols. Digital boards may use buttons or switches to make word/symbol selections.

Magnifiers

Magnifiers help seniors with visual impairments see written words and graphics. Some magnifiers are built into computers, making it easier to see PDFs and web pages. 

Signaling devices

Signaling devices are used to alert seniors with hearing loss to important events or environmental conditions. They use lights, piercing noises or vibrations to let users know about high carbon monoxide levels, the presence of smoke in the house, inclement weather warnings and other safety information.

Voice output devices

Voice output devices produce speech, making it possible for seniors with speaking difficulties to express themselves. These devices typically contain switches that are used to produce the desired output.

Voice recognition software

Voice recognition software makes it easier for seniors to use computers. Instead of having to type for long periods of time, a senior can use this software to turn their spoken words into a written document.

Daily Living Aids

Daily living aids make it easier for seniors to perform many activities around the house. They can also help seniors be more independent when they attend social events or go into the community to attend church, visit the doctor and participate in other activities. These aids can be used by almost anyone, but they’re especially helpful for seniors who have medical conditions that make it difficult to maintain their balance, walk long distances, eat, drink or move around the house. Many of these items cost less than $50, but high-tech devices may have an upfront cost of several hundred dollars or require you to pay a monthly subscription fee.

Item

Purpose

Adaptive eating and drinking devices

These devices make it easier to eat and drink without assistance. Adaptive utensils have features that make them easier to hold steady, while adaptive drinking cups have been modified to help seniors with swallowing difficulties.

Key holders

Key holders are designed to help seniors with reduced hand strength use their house keys.

Light switch extenders

A light switch extender makes it easier for seniors who use wheelchairs to reach the light switches in their homes, enabling them to turn lights on and off without asking for help.

Reachers/grabbers

Reachers and grabbers make it easier to pick up objects. Reachers are especially helpful for accessing items stored near the floor or on high shelves.

Medication dispensers

These dispensers prevent seniors from forgetting to take their medications or from taking too much. They dispense the correct dose of medication at the same times each day.

Learning Tools

Learning tools are designed to help seniors with cognitive difficulties improve their daily functioning. They’re especially helpful for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Depending on whether you choose a mobile app for brain training or a full suite of cognitive training software, your cost may range from as little as a few dollars to more than $100 per year.

Item

Purpose

Brain training games

Brain training games are designed to help seniors delay cognitive decline or prevent their cognitive function from continuing to decline after a dementia diagnosis. They’re available for mobile devices and computers.

Cognitive training software

Cognitive training software helps seniors improve their memory, attention and other aspects of cognitive function. Using this software may slow cognitive decline in people with dementia.

Mobility Aids

Mobility aids help seniors stay as active and independent as possible by making it easier to move around. Some seniors only need mobility aids when they must walk long distances or spend a lot of time standing, while others use the devices daily. The cost of these aids typically rises as the devices become more complex. Canes and walkers are fairly inexpensive, while chair lifts and power wheelchairs typically cost several thousand dollars. Mobility aids can be used by any senior with limited physical endurance. They’re also helpful for those with back pain, arthritis, foot problems and other medical conditions that make walking, standing and other movements more difficult.

Item

Purpose

Canes

Canes help seniors make up for deficits caused by poor balance, illnesses or injuries. Some models have four tips to provide extra support.

Scooters

If you have difficulty walking long distances, waiting in lines or sitting in the seats at medical offices, performing arts venues and other locations, a scooter can help you get around. Motorized models typically move forward and backward to make it easier to navigate a variety of environments.

Stair lifts

These devices make it easier to go up and down stairs, allowing you to access the second floor of your home. This type of lift is secured to a wall and has a seat that you ride in, eliminating the need to climb the stairs on your own.

Walkers

Walkers provide extra support for seniors with poor balance or limited endurance. They’re especially helpful for those with heart and lung conditions that can reduce their stamina.

Wheelchairs

A wheelchair makes it easier to move around if you have a medical condition that impairs your ability to walk or stand in one place for more than a few seconds. Some models are manual, meaning you need to propel them on your own, while others are motorized.

Vocational (Job) Tools

Vocational tools help seniors perform work-related tasks. They’re typically used by individuals with visual impairments and medical conditions that affect their upper-body strength. If you work for a private company, your employer may provide vocational tools for you, reducing your out-of-pocket costs.

Item

Purpose

Assistive keyboards

Assistive keyboards make it easier to type, eliminating strain on the wrists and arms. They can also be modified to help users with visual impairments.

Assistive listening systems

Assistive listening systems allow you to hear better when you’re out in public or having a one-on-one conversation. Basic handheld devices have microphones that amplify sound. Some systems are designed to be used in public spaces, so they integrate with PA systems. 

Color identifiers

Color identifiers make it easier to perceive color when working with a variety of objects. They can be used to help employees sort inventory, fulfill orders or order supplies, among other uses.

Currency identifiers

Currency identifiers help seniors with visual impairments distinguish different currency denominations, making it easier to accept cash payments from customers or handle petty cash.

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