Senior Age Tech
Nancy Delano, a retired elder care nurse, enjoys her independence. The 80-year-old Denver, Colorado resident drives to movies and plays and goes out to dinner with her friends.
Delano’s son, Tom Rogers, checks on her because he is concerned about his mother living alone. Delano knows that living alone has its drawbacks. She says that “when you reach a certain age, emergencies can happen fast.” This was one reason why she didn’t hesitate to install a remote monitoring system upon Tom’s recommendation.
Now, Delano has motion sensors throughout her house and her son can see when she moves around if she is sleeping, and even if she forgot to lock the door. What’s reassuring is the fact that Tom can monitor his mother from his home near Washington, D.C.
“It gives both of us peace of mind, particularly as she ages and wants to live at home,” Rogers said.
Delano and her son have joined other families in using technology that helps seniors maintain their independence and allows family members to keep tabs on their loved ones.
Smart alarm systems, like the one Rogers and Delano use, can show when seniors are moving in their homes, send an alert if the older adult leaves the house at odd hours, and send an alert when a senior’s routine activity pattern is out of the ordinary.
Devices that were once thought to be something for the future are increasingly becoming a way of life, said Sheri Rose, CEO and executive director of the Thrive Center, in Louisville, Kentucky. The center was established to promote healthy aging by spotlighting technological innovations and specialized educational programs.
Technology Empowers Seniors to Age in Place
Companies are developing new tech devices to help seniors stay safe in their homes. At the same time, technology is breathing new life into common household appliances and personal items to make it easier for older adults to take care of themselves and live independently. For example:
- Glass door refrigerators with Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered cameras allow users to see what is inside without opening the door. The cameras can identify food, set alerts for food expiration dates, and order groceries for delivery.
- Smartwatches and wearables, such as Apple Watch and Fitbit, can track heart rates, blood pressure, and blood oxygen saturation levels, and analyze the data that can be given to doctors for their review.
- Voice assistants, like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, are paired with other household devices to help seniors perform different tasks. Users can ask the voice assistants, which rely on AI technology, to do anything from turning on lights, to adjusting the thermometer, to making a phone call.
- Medical alert devices, whether a smartwatch, bracelet, or pendant, can detect falls and send an alert to a family member or another emergency contact if the wearer falls down.
Carol and Ray Smith, who live in the Carlsbad by the Sea retirement community in Carlsbad, California, received Amazon’s Echo smart assistant as part of a pilot program for seniors. The Echo smart speaker connects with the Alexa voice service to carry out a user’s request.
Carol, 83, is in a wheelchair and relies on her 84-year-old husband, Ray, to help her. With Echo and Alexa, however, Carol can do some things on her own. For instance, Carol can ask Alexa to control the lights and the thermostat, remind her to take her medications, call her brother, or call for help in an emergency.
The AI assistants give Carol a “great deal of independence,” Ray said. What’s more, it’s “keeping her safe, but closely related to that, it’s allowing her to be independently safe.”
The Amazon and Google products are not the only devices that provide medication reminders. Medisafe, a digital therapeutics company in Boston, has a user-friendly application (app) that helps people manage their medications and gives drug interaction warnings.
Mike Willis, a 63-year-old Guelph, Ontario, resident, uses Medisafe’s app to help him keep track of his medication. Willis says he takes 27 pills a day, most of which are anti-rejection drugs that ensure his body does not reject the heart transplant he received more than two-and-a-half years ago after contracting viral myocarditis.
While Medisafe’s standard app is free, users can upgrade to a paid Premium subscription which allows them to have a “MedFriend,” a family member, friend, or caregiver who can sync to the user’s app and receive notifications when users forget to take their medication.
Willis said he designated his wife, Linda, as his MedFriend, because he was a “little confused” about his medication after his transplant.
COVID-19 Pandemic Fueled The Need For Technology
The COVID-19 pandemic moved in-person visits to medical appointments and social engagements to the background and brought video conferences and virtual reality into the foreground.
Telehealth is not new since older adults with limited mobility scheduled video conferences with their doctors prior to the pandemic. But more seniors used video conferences for the first time to maintain contact with different health care providers.
According to Rose, improvements in tablet and camera capabilities have made virtual visits more meaningful. For example, the resolution levels are high enough on the devices that a dermatologist could accurately assess a wound.
Tablets, desktop computers, and smartphones also allowed seniors to stay in contact with their friends and family while sheltering in place. What’s more, virtual reality (VR) platforms provided a variety of activities for older adults. VR creates a virtual or pretend environment for users. By putting on a VR headset, the user can interact with an artificial three-dimensional visual or sensory environment. Google Earth VR, for instance, takes users around the world by letting them stroll through the streets of Tokyo or fly over Yosemite National Park, and other places.
At Thrive, Rose says that older adults can put on a VR headset and instantly feel as if they are sitting on a beach and meditating. Thrive does a lot with VR because “we know the impact it can have on reducing pain, loneliness and stress levels,” Rose said.
But not all seniors are able to take advantage of the benefits of technology. Rose cautions that issues need to be addressed for seniors in underserved urban communities and in rural areas where it is difficult to provide reliable high-speed internet service.
Once seniors get access to technology and understand how it helps them in their everyday life, they appreciate having a “smart home” where they can continue to age in place.
Now that Carol Smith has Alexa, she does not want to be without the AI virtual assistant. Smith said she asks Alexa to define words, play a song, or ask for the score of a basketball game that she couldn’t stay up to see in its entirety.
“There are so many things you can ask her,” Smith said about Alexa. “She’s fun. And she’s always pleasant.”