If you’re like most seniors, you’d prefer to stay independent and age in place. A 2021 study found that 77% of seniors want to remain in their current home over the long term, and this has been consistent for more than a decade. Thankfully, an increasing number of tools and devices can improve your independence and enhance your safety. Known broadly as assistive technology, or AT, this equipment can help you overcome the challenges that come with aging.

There aren’t any studies on how many Americans use AT, however in 2021, the market grew to $12.5 billion, demonstrating the popularity of the devices. This guide explains the types of AT, how to choose the right equipment for your needs and sources to help you pay for AT.  

What Is Assistive Technology?

Assistive technology is any item that can help the functional capabilities of people with disabilities. As AT is referred to as a technology, it can be easy to picture high-tech devices, but AT can be very simple, such as a cardboard communication board. AT can help people with a variety of needs. 

AT may provide medical assistance, such as an insulin pump for those with diabetes. AT also helps in ways that aren’t strictly medical. For example, although an e-reader can help someone with vision impairment read, it doesn’t have a specific medical purpose. 

AT that has a medical purpose and can withstand repeated use is known as durable medical equipment, or DME. As funding is often available for DME through government and private health insurance, the definition is quite strict. DME is expected to last at least 3 years and can’t be useful to someone who isn’t sick or injured. 

Age-Related Changes That Impact Health

Growing older is commonly associated with a decrease in health. A 2016 study found that in the United States, 40% of people 65 and older have a disability compared to 25% of the total adult population. Similarly, 85% of seniors have at least one chronic health condition. 

This is because human cells and molecules are always getting damaged. When we’re younger, we can repair this damage, but it accumulates over time. This makes it harder for cells to be replaced or repaired, leading to aging. A number of changes occur as you age that can impact your health and well-being. 

Thankfully, assistive technology can help you overcome these challenges. Both existing and developing technologies are available to help you continue to live a full and active life as you get older, even if you have a disability. The table below shows age-related changes and available assistive technology.

Age-Related Change

Caused By

Potential Impacts

Assistive Technology Available

Vision loss

Cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration

Social isolation, loss of leisure activities such as reading, unable to care for self

Glasses, magnifiers, video reading systems, white cane

Hearing loss

Deterioration of hairs or nerve cells in ears that help process sound

Isolation, difficulties communicating 

Hearing aids, telecommunications relay services, visual alert devices

Arthritis

Genetics, obesity, prior joint injury

Pain and lower quality of life, less activity

Mobility aids such as canes and walkers, reachers, easy-grip appliances; electronic devices such as can openers and food processors

Limited range of motion

Osteoporosis, weakened muscles, lack of strength and flexibility 

Hard to be active, prone to falls, less able to remain independent

Mobility devices such as canes and walkers; stability aids such as grip bars and shower chairs

Diabetes

Obesity and dietary choices can contribute

Lower quality of life due to blood sugar and food monitoring, may lead to serious outcomes such as amputation

Automated insulin pumps, blood glucose meters

Imbalance, disorientation, frailty

Conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, as well as just growing older

Increased risk of falls, decreased ability to live independently

Mobility devices such as canes; electronic appliances

Decreased dental health

Growing older

Difficulty eating, isolation due to not being able to go out to eat

Dentures, dental implants, food processors for pureed foods

Forgetfulness and confusion

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia

Unable to live independently, increased risk of wandering, more safety risks at home, decreased quality of life

Security systems to prevent wandering, appliances with auto-off switches

Respiratory disease

Asthma, chronic bronchitis, sleep apnea

Decreased quality of life, unable to be active, decreased energy

CPAP machines, oxygen tanks

Overview of the Types of Assistive Technology 

Retired senior woman laughing with her wooden walking stick while relaxing at home. Happy smiling old woman holding walking cane and looking through the window with positivity. Carefree smiling grandmother sitting on chair and looking away in nursing home.

With such a wide range of assistive technology, it can be helpful to know about the broad categories available. Many types of AT can fit into a number of categories depending on the user’s needs, as shown in the table below.

Category of Assistive Technology

How It Helps

Examples

Vision

Corrects or enhances vision or adapts equipment or environment to be navigable by people without vision

  • Magnifiers
  • Talking devices
  • Braille displays
  • Large print materials
  • Glasses and contact lenses
  • Phones with large buttons

Hearing

Enhances hearing or provides a visual cue for alerts or communication

  • Hearing aids
  • Vibrating alarm clocks
  • Amplified telephones
  • Phones with captioning
  • Doorbells with flashing light alert

Communication

Uses nonverbal or speech output to help people with speech disabilities to communicate

  • Voice amplification systems
  • Artificial larynx
  • Communication boards
  • Speech output software

Learning, cognition and developmental

Assists people who need help with learning, memory, organization and attention. 

  • Memory aids
  • Reminder systems
  • Mobile devices with specialized apps
  • Audiobooks

Mobility

Lets people move around more easily 

  • Wheelchairs
  • Canes
  • Walkers
  • Crutches
  • Scooters
  • Power chairs

Daily living

Helps people perform activities of daily living and instrumental activities of daily living, such as dressing, eating and shopping

  • Dressing aids such as zipper pulls
  • Adapted kitchen tools and eating utensils
  • Bookstands
  • Vacuum robots
  • Wheelchair cupholders

Environmental adaptations

Changes the environment to make it more accessible and easy to use

  • Ramps
  • Lifts
  • Door openers
  • Grab bars
  • Remote control appliances and electronics

Recreation

Helps people participate in sports and leisure activities

  • Playing card shufflers
  • Camera mounts
  • Sewing magnifiers
  • Adapted sports equipment

How To Choose the Right Assistive Technology

There are many AT options to choose from, so it can be difficult to know what to get. With the costs that are often involved, it’s also important to make a smart decision from the start. Proper planning helps you avoid wasting money and also ensures you start benefiting from the right AT as soon as possible. Follow these steps when looking at assistive technology.

Assess Your Needs

The first step is to assess your abilities, environment and needs. It helps to begin by looking at what you want to do. For example, there is no use in buying an electric can opener if you never eat canned food. 

Once you know what you want to do, look at what’s stopping you from doing it. Where can changes be made or assistance offered to allow you to achieve this goal?

Research and explore possible interventions and the different options available to you. The internet is a good way to start this research, but don’t overlook personal experience. Asking someone who has the same needs as you about the AT they use can get you an honest assessment of the pros and cons of different devices. In addition to Facebook groups and online forums, in-person support groups are a great way to find advice. 

Try Out Options

The next step is to try different options to see what works for you. You can go to AT suppliers to try before you buy. However, in many cases, it’s best to use a device for an extended period of time in the same environment where it’s needed. This lets you know how it performs in real-world circumstances.

Thankfully, there are places available that provide short-term device loans so you don’t need to buy equipment without a thorough test. Devices are also often available to rent before you lay out a large amount of money. This is useful if your need is only temporary, such as when you’re recovering from surgery.

Get Training

You want to get the most out of your AT, so get training in how to use it properly. There are organizations that offer training, and companies that sell the equipment often have training videos or tutorials to show off the features and how to use them. For some equipment, specifically DME, a medical professional can show you how to use the device correctly before taking it home. After you’ve received the training, take your device home and use it regularly. AT is of no use if it sits forgotten in a cupboard. The best way to get comfortable with any new device is to utilize it in your daily life.

Monitor and Evaluate

Monitor how the device is working for you. Think back on the wants and needs you identified in the first step. Is the device helping you meet these needs? Is it easy to use? Can improvements be made?

Make adjustments if they’re needed. If the AT isn’t working for you and you still have a loan device, try something else. Assess the success of the intervention and see if other devices can improve your outcomes. 

Seek Help 

Fortunately, organizations throughout the country provide assistance with each of these steps. In 2004, the Assistive Technology Act required that each state, as well as four U.S. territories, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, have Assistive Technology Act Programs, or ATAPs, that help residents access AT. 

The assistance you can find at your state ATAP can differ, but most provide demonstration activities, short-term device loans and training to help people assess their AT needs. ATAPs have a lot of knowledge about available equipment and how it can meet your needs. Your local ATAP may also offer assessment services to help you determine what sorts of AT can help you. Contact your state ATAP to get more information on how it can help you select assistive devices. 

Financial Assistance Options for Assistive Technology

Prices for assistive devices can range from quite affordable to very expensive. For example, you can get a reach grabber, which helps people pick things up without bending over, for less than $10. However, a hospital bed that can improve the health of those who are bed-bound and assist people with low mobility to get out of bed can cost more than $10,000. Thankfully, financial assistance is available to help you access AT. This table lists programs, coverage, eligibility and how to access assistive devices.

Program

Description

What's Covered

Eligibility

How To Access

Government-provided medical insurance for people over 65 years of age. Pays for 20% of approved amount after the Part B deductible

Part B covers DME that's medically necessary and prescribed by your doctor for use in the home.

Aged 65 and over or have a disability or end-stage renal disease. Cost of premiums is based on income and how long you worked.

See your medical provider, who will fill out an order form. Go to a Medicare-enrolled supplier to get the equipment.

State-run programs that provide health insurance to low-income residents

Rules differ depending on the state and program. Generally, programs cover medically necessary DME that’s cost-effective.

Rules differ between states. Applicants have to meet certain asset and income limits.

Contact your state’s Medicaid office.

Private Insurance

Health insurance provided by private companies

Each policy has different rules. Devices are often covered if medically necessary and cost-effective.

Check your individual policy or ask your provider.

Check with your provider. You may need pre-approval for equipment.

Programs designed to assist people who served in the military

There are a number of different programs. Depending on the program, it may pay for medically necessary equipment, home modification or provide cash that can be used for AT.

Eligibility differs depending on the program. In most cases, participants must have served in the military. Some programs may assist the spouses of veterans.

Speak to a benefits officer at a local VA center for assistance identifying and applying for a relevant program.

State-run programs that help people access AT

Many states offer refurbished equipment for low or no cost to low-income residents. Financial assistance through grants or low-interest loans is often available.

Differs between states

Contact your local ATAP.

National nonprofit organization that provides disability and community services

Local organizations have different programs. They may provide equipment loans, refurbished equipment or financial assistance to purchase AT.

Have a need for the equipment. Local branches may have additional requirements or may prioritize assistance based on need.

Contact your local Easterseals group.

Provides assistance to people with disabilities, including those with cerebral palsy

Local affiliates have different programs that include lending libraries. Affiliates may nominate people for the UCP Elsie S. Bellows Fund, which helps people pay for AT.

Eligibility requirements differ between affiliates.

Speak to a local UCP affiliate.

A national nonprofit organization that increases opportunities for people who are blind or visually impaired

Pays for 50% of the retail price of adaptive devices. Products must cost $200-$6,000.

Applicants must be legally blind and U.S. residents. They must also meet income and asset guidelines. 

Fill out the request form on the website and send it to ABC.

An international service group. Local affiliates provide community services.

Provides recycled eyeglasses and hearing aids to people in need. Local clubs may have other AT programs.

Eligibility differs depending on the local club.

Contact your local Lions Club to enquire about receiving assistance.

In addition to these national organizations and programs, many local programs help people on low incomes access AT. This may be through equipment exchanges, refurbishment or monetary grants. Your state ATAP can provide information about any local AT resources. 

How To Access Funding for Assistive Technology   

Many of the financial resources only provide funding after you submit a formal request. This process is different depending on the organization, so it’s best to ask a representative. The following steps list what’s commonly required to give you an idea of the process involved. 

Step 1: Documentation Checklist

It’s likely the funding organization will supply you with a list of the documents they need. If not, develop your own checklist. Commonly required documents include:

  • Needs assessment
  • Evaluation document of the needed AT
  • Doctor’s prescription
  • Letter of medical necessity from physician and other professionals involved in the assessment
  • General description of medical diagnosis
  • Explanation of how your life or functional skills will be improved by the device
  • Specifications of the equipment

Step 2: Document the Needs Assessment

A needs assessment is conducted by a team of professionals and identifies how the AT will help your life. These professionals must detail your needs from a medical perspective. Some funding sources look for details of how the AT will increase your independence. 

Step 3: Document the Evaluation of the Device

Funding providers want a clear idea of what the device is, how it will help you and its cost-effectiveness. Generally, this is also provided by a professional. It should include:

  • What type of device will improve your level of function
  • Who is evaluating the need and AT
  • The costs involved
  • Who has prescribed the device
  • What services are required to train you in the device’s use and to follow up to ensure it works as expected

Step 4: Determine the Funding Sources

Consider all possible options for paying for the device. In some cases, financial assistance is only provided if you have exhausted all other payment options. Due to this, you must show that you have looked at other sources of funding, including private health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid. 

Step 5: Investigate Alternative Equipment

Many funding sources, especially government sources, will only fund the most cost-efficient AT option. Investigate other equipment that’s available to see if something else can assist you. If this is the only option, make sure you can explain why alternatives won’t work. 

Step 6: Develop Funding Justification

A funding justification is often needed by organizations that offer grants. It should state how the AT will make your life better. Explain why this is the best solution and document other options that you tried. You should also be able to demonstrate your ability to use the technology. If you have photos or videos of you using the technology, especially if the change is dramatic, these should also be included. 

Step 7: Write a Letter of Transmittal

This is essentially a covering letter that lists the documentation included in your application package, how many copies there are of each document and your name and contact details. If you have someone acting on your behalf, include their name and contact number. Remember to ask the organization to contact you immediately if there’s any documentation missing.

Step 8: Receive Authorization

The organization will send you written approval for the amount of money that’s been authorized. If the amount covers the full purchase price, your vendor will provide you with the equipment. If not, you may need to search for co-payment options, such as a loan or assistance from local community organizations. 

Step 9: Appeal the Decision

If your request is denied, you may be able to appeal the decision. Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies have appeals procedures that you can follow. Local Area Agencies on Aging may be able to put you in contact with counselors to help you navigate this process. Although nonprofit organizations may require similar documentation, their ability to help may depend on their funding. This means an appeal may not be useful in those situations. 

Assistive Technology Directory 

Vision

Vision devices help blind and vision-impaired people. Vision AT can help people access computers, navigate through the world and complete day-to-day activities. 

Device

Helps

Average Costs

Glasses

  • Short-sightedness
  • Long-sightedness
  • Astigmatism
  • Presbyopia

$196

Magnifier

  • Low vision

$15-$50

Screen reading software

  • Low vision
  • Blindness

$0-$1,200

Mobile phone for visually impaired

  • Blind people
  • Visually impaired

$75+

Hearing

Hearing assistance devices help people who are hard of hearing. They can enhance auditory input or provide visual cues when sounds are usually used. Hearing AT help can help with activities of daily living, communication and other needs. Medicare doesn’t cover the cost of hearing aids, and private insurance and state Medicaid programs may also exclude hearing aids from their coverage.

Device

Helps

Average Cost

Hearing aids

  • Hearing loss

$100-$5,600

Amplified telephone

  • Hearing loss

$70

Vibrating alarm clock

  • Hearing loss
  • Deafness

$20+

Captioned telephone

  • Hearing loss
  • Deafness

$75

Communication

AT for communication helps people with speech disabilities. This can let seniors communicate clearly with loved ones, caregivers and medical professionals. There are three types of speech disorders:

  • Articulation disorders, where there’s an absence or distortion of speech sounds
  • Fluency disorders, where there’s an interruption or break in the flow of speech
  • Voice disorders, where there’s an impairment that impacts loudness, vocal quality and pitch. This may be caused by other conditions, such as throat cancer.

Device

Helps

Average Cost

Voice amplification system

  • Voice disorder

$70+

Artificial larynx

  • People without a larynx

$250-$1,200

Communication board

  • Speech impairment

Starting at $0
Electronic boards $79+

Speech-generating device

  • Speech impairment

$200+ 

Systems that people can control with eye movement can cost $15,000 or more.

Learning, Cognition and Developmental Ability

These products help people with learning, memory, organization and attention disabilities. Many tools can help seniors who have mild memory issues, and more advanced equipment can assist those with more serious conditions such as dementia.

Device

Helps

Average Cost

Electronic pill box

  • Forgetfulness
  • Dementia

$30-$160

Electrical appliance monitor

  • Forgetfulness
  • Dementia

$30+

Electronic reminder system

  • Forgetfulness
  • Dementia

$70+

Personal locator

  • Alzheimer’s disease

$170-$450

Mobility

There’s a wide range of mobility devices to help people who have difficulty walking or are unable to walk. Aids that help people transport wheelchairs and other mobility devices can also come under this category.

Device

Helps

Average Cost

Manual wheelchair

  • Muscle weakness
  • Inability to use legs

$1,000-$2,000

Electric wheelchair

  • Muscle weakness
  • Inability to use legs

Average $7,100

Vehicle lift

  • Wheelchair and scooter users

$1,500+

Walker

  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of balance

$50-$160

Cane

  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of balance

$15-$100

Stand assist cushion

  • People who have difficulty getting out of chairs

$75-$150

Geriatric seat lift chair

  • People who need help standing

$500-$2,500

Daily Living

Daily living AT helps people complete activities of daily living, such as bathing, grooming and eating. Some devices can also help with other day-to-day necessities, such as shopping and cooking.

Device

Helps

Average Cost

Dressing aid

  • Can help fasten clothes and pull zippers
  • Good for people with mobility issues

$10+

Adaptive clothing

  • People who have trouble with buttons

$25+

Long-handle shoe horn

  • People who can’t bend over to reach shoes

$10+

Shower chair

  • Muscle weakness
  • Balance issues
  • Lack of strength

$25+

Bedside commode

  • Mobility issues

$45-$250

Adaptive cooking tool

  • Muscle weakness
  • Mobility issues
  • Difficulty gripping

$5+

Vacuum robot

  • Frailty
  • Weakness
  • Mobility issues

$125+

Environmental Adaptations

Environmental adaptations increase access to homes and businesses. These types of AT may also be classed as home modifications and may require funding from different organizations. 

Device

Helps

Average Cost

Portable ramp

  • Mobility issues

$25+

Stairlift

  • Mobility issues
  • Loss of balance
  • Muscle weakness

$2,200-$5,000

Residential elevator

  • Wheelchair users
  • Mobility issues
  • Muscle weakness

$30,000

Smart home device

  • Frailty
  • Forgetfulness or dementia

$1,500+

Motion sensor light

  • Forgetfulness 
  • Dementia
  • Mobility issues

$10+

Recreation and Leisure

Recreation and leisure AT helps seniors maintain their quality of life by ensuring they can continue to participate in activities they enjoy. A wide range of devices is available to help with all manner of leisure pursuits.

Device

Helps

Average Cost

Playing card shuffler

  • Arthritis

$10+

Craft light

  • Poor vision

$50+

Bowling ball ramp

  • Muscle weakness
  • Frailty
  • Wheelchair user

$170+

Electric fishing reel

  • Arthritis

  • Muscle weakness

$80+