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.
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 is senior executive editor of Home Energy.
This article originally appeared on HomeEnergy.org.