6 Technologies Changing the Face of Senior Care
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than a fifth (21.7 percent, to be precise) of all senior citizens above the age of 65 are in fair or poor health. As individuals age, their health will likely deteriorate, accounting for an increase in the amount of healthcare resources—doctor visits, medical services, pharmaceuticals and so on—consumed by seniors.
Seniors often stress about these concerns, and rightly so. They must be emotionally and physically ready to adjust to the realities and health implications of becoming older.
However, loved ones have concerns regarding the health of seniors, too. The children or caregivers of the elderly may be trying to find a balance between caring for their loved ones and their personal lives. Hospitals and medical centers must actively seek new ways to care for their older patients, and government health programs want to maintain a healthy consumer base and pursue cost-effective services and treatments.
Technology Can Help
Companies have developed a variety of products, such as a bed safety rail to prevent older individuals from falling out of bed and an adjustable seat for bathroom safety, to help seniors age safely. But luckily, we live in the Age of Technology, and individuals and organizations alike are just beginning to figure out how to leverage technology to address the health issues faced by senior citizens. This also includes the unique implications of those issues for older adults, their families, and health professionals.
For example, for many different reasons, such as a lack of money or time, or geographic distance, many families choose to move an older loved one into an assisted living facility. However, this option is expensive: Genworth Financial found that the average annual cost to live in a nursing home in the United States was $84,000 in 2013, up from $65,000 in 2012.
This financial incentive aligns with the emotional well-being of seniors, more than 90 percent of whom want to live at home as they get older, according to AARP. This problem is just one issue of senior care that targeted technology can address.
Since there is so much going on in the healthcare technology space, we’ve curated six big technology trends that are changing the face of senior care today.
Chances are that when you hear the phrase “artificial intelligence,” it doesn’t jump out as an obvious way to address seniors’ health issues. However, artificial intelligence no longer belongs in the domain of science fiction—after all, Apple iPhones have had Siri for years—and experts are saying it has the potential to drastically change how society cares for an ever-increasing senior population.
Artificial intelligence is technology that can perform tasks that have traditionally required human capabilities, such as visual perception and complex decision-making, and has several associated risks and benefits. While professionals say that artificial intelligence is already being used in medical care, they also caution away from fictional images of robot doctors diagnosing senior conditions remotely. The realities of how artificial intelligence is being used in medicine is less glamorous.
Artificial intelligence is being used to code complex algorithms capable of analyzing very large data sets. This functionality has and will continue to be deployed as computer programs that can diagnose senior conditions and recommend customized treatment plans. And according to professionals, one of the most promising applications of artificial intelligence would be to help senior citizens age in their homes for longer.
Applying artificial intelligence to senior care could minimize human error. Because the computer programs would do much of the remote “thinking” that doctors must regularly do, doctors would have more time to provide more services to more patients.
This time would lead to better quality of care, at the same time as lowering costs. In fact, this technology is so promising that Medicare may pay for artificial intelligence services soon in the future.
This is a term that most of us have heard, even if we aren’t quite familiar with what exactly it entails. Telemedicine is the use of technology by physicians, such as mobile phones, to diagnose and treat patients. For disabled or sick seniors with few means to travel to and from potentially frequent doctors’ appointments, telemedicine could be extremely useful in managing chronic conditions and staying out of a nursing home.
Many telemedicine strategies require only a smart device, like an iPhone or tablet, and a connection to the Internet. As such, telemedicine not only makes it easier for seniors to receive medical advice but also comes at a relatively low price. Furthermore, insurance companies are beginning to cover services that enable senior citizens to FaceTime with their doctors, reducing transportation time and the hassle of going to the doctor’s office.
At the same time, Telemedicine also allows doctors to check in with older patients more frequently. One valid concern is that telemedicine would make doctor-patient interactions less meaningful and more impersonal, due to the lack of in-person interaction. But video conferencing telemedicine technologies are aiming to address this concern. Perhaps they won’t quite get to the level of personal that in-person doctors’ visits afford, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Smartphones and the mobile applications that you can download onto them have made life easier for many. You can now order a car to your door on Uber, transfer money to friends and family with Venmo and make a restaurant reservation with OpenTable.
But mobile apps are also promising in the field of senior care. Like telemedicine, mobile apps enable caregivers to check in on older family members by pressing a button or two, giving both parties peace of mind.
In addition to keeping family members connected with the seniors they care for, there are a whole slew of other apps that help seniors remember health appointments or medications they need to take, which comes in handy for busy seniors or those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia.
For example, the app Red Panic Button allows users to press, as the title suggests, a red panic button when they feel threatened or are in distress. This button automatically generates a text message and an email to all emergency contacts with the user’s location, getting them help almost instantaneously.
While such apps can be used by anyone, it is easy to see how they apply particularly well to senior care. If a senior is home alone and sustains a fall and an injury, such apps are well-positioned to notify key people to their situation. These apps allow seniors a modicum of independence to move about as they wish, but also the comfort of knowing they can call for help when they need it.
A study by Kalorama Information found that in 2014, remote patient monitoring devices accounted for nearly $30 billion in sales globally. The majority of that demand was generated by health facilities and home treatment companies, indicating this is a promising technology to apply to senior care.
Nearly 40 percent of senior citizens aged 65 or older have one or more disabilities, according to the National Institutes of Health, and this doesn’t include the proportion of seniors struggling with other chronic conditions that need close monitoring. These health-focused technologies are cost-effective, removing the need for costly visits to doctors and the hospital. The range of monitoring devices cover capabilities from monitoring glucose levels (particularly useful for older patients with diabetes), heart rate, blood pressure, sleep quality and length, food intake and diet composition, and activity levels.
Family members and home care professionals alike can take advantage of monitoring devices to keep an eye on older patients. This care reduces both the stress levels of the senior citizen, as they now have help managing everyday conditions, and on caregivers, as they now have an easy way to assist older patients without having to always be with them in person.
Sensors are a great way to help seniors stay in their homes instead of having them move into nursing homes. Sensors specific to senior care are like security sensors, which can be placed on doors and windows around the house to track movements, but they have additional capabilities as well.
For example, these sensors can also be placed on appliances, as well as the individual, and can indicate to caregivers if a senior citizen falls or doesn’t make it out of bed in the first place. This type of monitoring is particularly useful for Alzheimer’s patients, who may forget to do necessary activities, such as eating or showering day-to- day.
Wearable sensors must be both functional and attractive (think FitBit, but for safety as well as health). For example, the Lively watch looks like a smartwatch, and offers stylistic variation, with the choice of a black or white face and different colored straps. But the watch is also connected to a smartphone app, call center and in-home sensors, and offers abilities like medication reminders and step counting. The Lively watch is both functional and stylish, which likely increases its demand among the elderly for whom safety devices mostly come in one size and color.
We’re all familiar with GPS, if only through navigating to destinations on Google Maps. GPS is a precise estimate of an individual’s location through technology installed on a phone or other device that the individual is carrying. GPS tracking lets family members and law enforcement officers locate seniors that are out of the home and may have gotten lost or may be in some trouble.
Furthermore, companies and health professionals have also started seeing the value of being able to quickly locate senior citizens. In cases of medical emergencies, certain apps allow seniors to call for help, alerting key caregivers and organizations immediately. However, as useful as GPS is, some companies recognize that GPS can sometimes pose limitations to caring for seniors. These companies have begun to develop technology to locate seniors in need of help in places where GPS may not work, such as in a parking garage.
But sometimes, GPS can be used for less urgent needs, and not necessarily for finding a senior. A recent innovation, called The Look, is a small product that discretely attaches to the side of a pair of glasses, and comes with an app for iPhones and Androids. In the case that the glasses are ever misplaced, GPS tracking through the smartphone app can easily help locate it.
Because The Look was seeking funding through an Indiegogo campaign back in 2014, it might not have progressed to full funding and production. However, we expect that devices like The Look—which incidentally was developed by a social scientist and his grandmother—could come in handy for seniors who need glasses to get through each day.
Other technologies may come in useful to seniors living alone. For example, by partnering with databases from Bon Appetit and Food Network, among others, Google Home is now programmed to walk users through millions of recipes. For seniors for whom daily chores such as cooking might become a struggle, innovations like this one make things slightly easier.
All six of these technologies are promising ways to tackle senior care, and could reduce emotional and financial burdens on seniors and their loved ones. However, there are two caveats. First, technology is not a “cure-all” for the complex problems seniors may face as they age. Experts assert that these technologies could help seniors age in place, but that institutional care is more appropriate for some seniors depending on their conditions.
Second, because older generations did not grow up with technology, they may face a steep learning curve in trying to use the technologies. As a result, any technologies developed for senior use and care must be easy to use and might require additional effort from families and professionals to help seniors adjust.
However, according to the 2010 United States Census, seniors aged 65 or older will comprise nearly a fifth of the nation’s population by 2050. At that time, when younger generations, who have grown up with technology, get older, we can expect these technologies to become more refined and widely-used.
- Becky McDowell