All of us have elderly relatives or friends, but have you ever considered their energy consumption patterns? On the surface, those patterns may look little different from your own, but in fact the aging population brings new needs across the whole spectrum of health, transportation, recreation, housing, and safety. And since the over-65 cohort is a growing fraction of the population, their needs will become greater in the future. To our knowledge, there has been no comprehensive examination of the future energy needs of the elderly.

Thermal comfort is an overriding concern for the elderly. They need their homes warmer in the winter than the rest of population, because they are more sedentary and more sensitive to the cold. They also spend more time at home. Some types of heating system offer better thermal comfort than others. The elderly also need their homes cooler in the summer, because they are more sensitive to the heat. This is serious stuff. The great Chicago heat wave of 1995 and the even greater Paris heat wave of 2003 killed mostly old people. After the Fukushima tragedy, Japanese citizens were urged to conserve electricity by using less A/C. The old folks complied… and ambulance calls for heatstroke among old people tripled. These examples show that a more extensive set of conservation measures focusing on thermal comfort would be justified: better windows, tighter air sealing, higher insulation levels, and, of course, more efficient heating and A/C systems to offset heating and cooling loads.

Older people bring new applications of electricity into homes, ranging from elevators to medical equipment. In Japan, the elderly have been the most enthusiastic adopters of advanced shower toilets—a cute device that both rinses and dries the you-know-where. The health benefits of these toilets are considerable, but so is their energy use: A poorly designed model easily adds 300 kWh per year to the energy bill. Italy is one of the world’s largest markets for residential elevators, as it struggles to service its aging population. The power supply, controls, and lights can make an elevator use more electricity than a refrigerator even if never used. These examples are just the first of many: Expect robots, sensors, and a host of safety, comfort, and miscellaneous gadgets to help old people live independently in the future. Electricity security may become a lifesaving necessity, so batteries (and their chargers) will become more common. Somebody is going to figure out how to harness the home’s smart meter to watch for deviations in energy consumption patterns that suggest an accident has occurred.

Advanced toilets like the one above are becoming popular and adding to the energy bills of Japanese, especially the elderly. (© F_studio - Fotolia.com)

Other needs are subtle. User interfaces for older people need to be more carefully designed. (Automobile manufacturers are already worrying about this.) Controls for thermostats and any other controls with small buttons and displays are frustrating for those with arthritis or impaired vision. A thermostat located in a dark hallway requiring an older person to bend over and puzzle over cryptic terms and icons will never get adjusted to save energy.

One way to systematically address these energy issues is through a collection of elder-friendly specifications. Let’s call it Elder Star. Products–and perhaps even whole homes–that meet certain specifications would earn the Elder Star endorsement. In practice, however, it would be hard to establish these specifications, because the abilities of the aged vary so widely. These specifications will also overlap with the existing principles of Universal Design, with guidelines for independent living for the disabled, and perhaps even with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (both of which may be a source of some specifications). But hard does not mean impossible.

Energy efficiency for the elderly cannot be treated in isolation, because an energy conservation measure that causes a trip to the ER is a false economy. It is wasteful for an old person to live alone in a large home, but perhaps it’s still preferable to a nursing home for reasons having little to do with energy efficiency. Alternatives such as granny flats could be upgraded to Elder Star specifications and make a difference in the lives of extended families.

Catering to the unique energy needs of the elderly makes sense at many levels. It also translates into a potential business opportunity. Energy costs for the elderly will always be small compared to health costs, but higher investments in efficiency are justified when they can reduce health costs, improve safety, or simply enhance the peace of mind of people in their later years. An important step in legitimizing this growing market will be Elder Star.

-Alan Meier

Alan Meier is senior executive editor of Home Energy.

This article originally appeared on HomeEnergy.org.

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Comment by R Higgins on July 16, 2013 at 4:44pm

That you can't find energy stats for elder care which is quite frankly, sad.  In this age of gov't cut backs, it's hard to imagine private industry stepping up to the plate to do this basic research, nor a university (what would they get from it, few grants to tap, no product to spin off so no corp. money). 

I can tell you lighting studies do show that even in a persons 50's and 60's need more light, much more for fine work.  Also the quality of light, steady, low contrast.  Despite this quite readily available data, those at the forefront of sustainability focus on lowering light levels, daylighting and task lighting, all create highly variable and high contrast conditions.  This at a time more elderly have to work to make ends meet too.

I'd like to share some elder care advice too.  Your comment on summer cooling is spot on.  95% of the time natural ventilation, a fan, is all you need.  That one week of straight 90's can kill you though without some break from the heat during each day.  Fully AC'g a house for just one week is pretty expensive though.  Perhaps as I have done, partial AC is the answer?  My folks are high in the mountains, but I make sure every summer one room has a working AC, just in case.  Then I call every day or so during a heat wave to make sure they aren't trying to save me the $2 a day it'll cost if they use that AC during an afternoon nap.

Comment by Robert (Bob) Bacon on July 15, 2013 at 8:44am

Alan, thanks for bringing to light some of the implications of meeting the special needs of our aging population. I feel that comfort gets too little attention by building performance professionals who seem more focused on economics and thermal efficiency. Both very important - but meaningless unless comfort is achieved or maintained in the process. The theoretical savings of efficiency improvement measures will not be realized if the measure is circumvented to achieve greater comfort or convenience. I would encourage all building performance practitioners to gain a better understanding and appreciation of the physiology and psychology of human comfort. ASHREA Fundamental is a great place to start..

Comment by David Allen on July 15, 2013 at 8:04am

I enjoyed your article, Alan. It detailed clearly some of the issues the elderly population is facing and will increasingly face...Excellent point here,  "Electricity security may become a lifesaving necessity..."

Beyond implementing energy efficiency strategies, the idea of solar adaptation will become an attractive addition to the home performance equation, I believe.

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