Professionals in gerontology and geriatrics estimate that by the middle of the 21st century, more than 60 million of people in the United States will be older than 65. Many of these people will cross the 85-age-line (Schulz, 2007). In this context, old people do not simply live longer, but remain active and productive and strive to preserve their individual independence even in older age. Obviously, these demographic shifts are extremely challenging to society.
As long as the process of aging is associated with biological, psychological, physiological, and cognitive changes, older people face a whole set of issues, when trying to preserve stability of their links with the real-world environments. These are often impossible without using technologies. Human factors engineering is expected to make valuable contribution in geriatrics, making aging population less vulnerable to the abovementioned changes, and enhancing the quality of life among older adults.
As a multidisciplinary science, human factors engineering is about numerous issues, but in this work special attention will be given to home and work activities (social aspects of human factors engineering), as well as the problems older people may experience with vision and hearing (individual aspects of human factors engineering). To begin with, “human factors engineering is the study of human beings and their interactions with products, environments, and equipment in the performance of tasks and activities” (Schulz, 2007).
It is a multidisciplinary field in that it encompasses the disciplines of psychology, physiology, engineering, biomechanics, and computer science. Regardless of whether in aging, in pediatrics, or in adulthood, human factors engineering seeks to identify specific human capabilities, their limitations associated with age, the impact of these limitations on individuals’ interactions with the real-world environments, and the ways of improving these interactions.
When it comes to geriatrics as the science of aging, human factors engineering is to address the four essential aspects, which actually shape an older person’s reality: work, home, transportation, and product design (Schulz, 2007). Some authors also include communication, safety and security, and leisure into the list of critical human factors engineering elements in aging (Czaja, 1990). Certainly, home and home activities present the greatest challenges to older people. Against a common belief, many older people live alone and have to cope (or even to fight) with a whole set of home activities.
Apart from living alone, many older people are likely to spend most of their time at home, and many of them will also face a difficulty in performing even simple tasks like bathing, cooking, washing, cleaning, etc. The most common home traumas include falls, burns (e. g. from cooking), and poisoning from gases and vapors (Czaja, 1990). Given that to live alone for older people means to preserve their individuality, and that performing their home tasks without external assistance works to enhance their self-esteem, several technological and social solutions can help older people cope with these challenges.
First of all, appropriate home design may substantially reduce the risk of traumas; convenient stairways, better lighting, handrails – all these can successfully remedy human factors issues in geriatrics (Schulz, 2007). Second, when it comes to household chores, a range of in-home services including delivered meals and home health visits can “extend the ability of the elderly to live independently” (Czaja, 1990). However, older people’s striving to independence is not limited to home activities.
Work remains one of the critical factors of social and individual success later in life. Objectively, and in the light of the current demographic trends, businesses are no longer able to design work environments in a way that fits both younger and older workers; “clearly, most businesses and industries now need to develop strategies to accommodate an aging workforce” (Schulz, 2007). In this context, the two essential individual factors of aging come into place. First, business owners face a challenge of compensating for age-related visual deficits.
Second, they are also bound to comply and cope with hearing issues in older workers. These two aspects are fairly regarded as the two most important human engineering factors of aging (Charness & Schaie, 2003). It is difficult to deny the fact that the changes in peripheral vision, color perceptions, motion perceptions, as well as anatomical changes in hearing, the loss of frequency and intensity of sound perceptions, as well as distorted sound localization may significantly reduce and even discriminate against the older worker’s desire and ability to work.
At the same time, more and more older people remain in the workforce; many of them undertake part-time jobs. Not only does work help older people preserve their individuality and independence, but it also relieves the social and unemployment burden at the state and federal levels (Czaja, 1990). That is why businesses do not have any other choice but to seek effective human factors engineering solutions to cope with the discussed issues. Unfortunately, although the amount of information about aging is affluent, the data on the implications of aging for work is rather scarce.
Generally, books on human factors engineering refer to ergonomic considerations (better workplace design, accommodation, and possible use of assistive technologies), equipment redesign, and possible training needs (Schulz, 2007). These, however, do not address such factors of aging in work environments as absenteeism and turnover (Czaja, 1990). As a result, when it comes to work environments, jobs for older people should be designed to help them preserve their productivity and remain a part of the workforce, even when the need to be absent from work arises.
For example, the use of computer technologies could help older people take jobs that do not require leaving their homes. When it comes to vision and hearing issues, a range of information processing computer software could be utilized to enhance the quality of older people’s interactions with the real world (Charness & Schaie, 2003). In similar ways, technology can be successfully used to help older people train their memory, cognitive skills, and attention.
For example, older people can be trained to use computer technologies as a part of their attention and memory improvement strategies. Similar recommendations can also cover the areas of communication, transportation, and leisure. Unfortunately, professional human factors engineering research is only at the initial stage of its evolution, and whether older people are given a chance to participate in the major life activities also depends on how well human factors engineering professionals will perform in terms of empirical and practical research.
Also, how well businesses and authorities use and implement recommendations and requirements presented as a result of human factors engineering research will predetermine older’ people success in socialization, work, communication and other life activities. Conclusion Human factors engineering is a multidisciplinary science that studies the ways in which humans interact with different environments. When it comes to geriatrics, human factors engineering is expected to study older people’s work and personal capabilities, their limitations, and the ways of addressing and overcoming them.
Given that more and more older people live alone and strive to keep their jobs as a matter of better self-esteem and independence, many of them may face serious challenges associated with inevitable physiological biological, cognitive, and mechanical changes. Although the data regarding possible human factors solutions is rather limited, it is very probable that the nearest decade will give older people broader opportunities for self-realization in various social domains, from work to leisure and communication.