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VESTED Magazine

A Smarter Future for Seniors

As chief innovation officer for AARP, Terry Bradwell feels duty bound to try all the high-tech stuff marketed to seniors. Bradwell admits that some technology is more complicated to use than many older adults might prefer. However, if their dream is to stay safe, healthy, secure, and connected to the world—without moving out of their home—then technology is going to be their friend.

As chief innovation officer for AARP, the advocacy group for older adults, Terry Bradwell feels duty bound to try all the high-tech stuff marketed to seniors these days.

So, at 54, he’s an enthusiastic early adopter of the smart home. His Florida home is outfitted with cameras outside and all manner of sensors and connected devices inside. When he’s traveling, he can use an app on his phone to see what the front door camera sees. If someone rings the bell, he can answer it, with his voice seeming to come from inside.

The same AT&T system controls the home’s heating and cooling systems, raises and lowers the window shades, and is capable of detecting a flood. Bradwell’s lawn is smart too: it knows when it needs to sprinkle itself.

And that’s just the big stuff. Bradwell also has a sensor on his keys that beeps when he searches for it on his phone. He has Amazon’s Echo, a voice-controlled internet hub and speaker that can do everything from play music to order an Uber ride or a pizza. And he’s tested Sen.se Mother, a set of motion sensors you can put on your pill containers or water bottles (to track their use)—or even in a willing spouse’s pocket (so you get a text when she walks in the door).

Right now, Bradwell admits that a lot of this technology is more complicated to set up and use than many older adults might like. 

But make no mistake, he and other experts say: if your dream is to age in place—to stay safe, healthy, secure, and connected to the world, without moving out of your home—technology is going to be your friend.

“Increasingly, these things are going to become not just cool and nice to have, but really imperative,” Bradwell says. They are also going to become easier to use and even more connected to one another, he says.

And it’s not just older homeowners who will demand all this connectivity, says Laurie Orlov, founder of Aging in Place Technology Watch. “Everybody wants seniors to be able to stay in their homes.” The best technologies will be win-wins for those seniors, their families, their healthcare providers, their insurers, and society at large, she says.

Here are some of the areas in which the experts say technology will make the biggest differences…

Health

If you are counting steps with a Fitbit, tracking your diet with a smartphone app, or communicating with your doctor’s office online, you have some inkling of the power of technology to support your health. But that’s just a taste of what’s to come. Imagine a wristband that detects dehydration, shoe inserts that detect an unsteady gait, or a toilet that tests your urine. All are real products in various stages of development.

Many people already use devices that remind them to take medications via a text, email, or voice alert. Some devices dispense the correct pills on schedule. Forget to take a pill anyway? A family member may get an alert as well.

And many healthcare consumers have already been introduced to telemedicine—electronic interactions with doctors, nurses, and other providers. Rural heart failure patients are attending group counseling sessions via video conferencing. Patients taking blood-thinning drugs are testing their blood at home, sending the results through a specialized device, and getting a call if their dose needs adjusting. Diabetes patients are getting diet and exercise advice through personalized text messages.

Such interactions will only increase as an aging population makes ever greater demands on the medical system, says David Lindeman, director of the Center for Technology and Aging at the Public Health Institute in Oakland, California.

And remote care does not have to mean reduced care, he says: “You could be in the same room and seeing someone only once a week. Or using technology, you might see them every day,” he says. “That could be equally or more powerful.”

In an ideal world, these technologies will reduce the time we all spend driving to and waiting for appointments—and keep us out of hospitals and nursing homes.

Safety and Security

“I had a neighbor who died last year and was not found for a month,” Orlov says. “That is everyone’s nightmare.” But, she says, it’s a nightmare that should become less common as more of us wire up our lives. When our home motion sensors fail to detect us moving around as usual, someone is going to be alerted. Likewise, a fire or a gas or water leak will set off alarms not only in our homes, but on our loved ones’ smartphones.

And when we’ve fallen and we can’t get up? The medical alert system that made that phrase famous in the 1980s—the Life Alert pendant—is still sold, but it has a lot of competition. Several companies now make pendants and wrist bands that summon help at the touch of a button, detect falls in or outside the home, and allow caregivers to track wearers via GPS.

Still, so-called personal emergency response systems have a persistent image problem, says Jean Anne Booth, an engineer based in Austin, Texas. For many people, “that big help button is socially stigmatizing,” she says. Her own mother, an 82-year-old retired model, refused to wear one, she says. “So I called her up and said what if I could make you a watch that looks good?”

Booth, 54, and her mother, who lives in California, have been trying out Booth’s invention, the UnaliWear™ Kanega watch. One potential selling point: the watch talks and responds to voice commands. The user can call for help, get medication reminders, and ask for directions. The watch also offers directions home if the wearer is wandering off in an unfamiliar direction, a feature that might be welcomed by someone in the early stages of dementia.

Of course, many of us already carry around a lifesaving communications device. It’s called a smartphone. At least one company, GreatCall, offers simplified smartphones as well as basic alert devices.

Transportation

The future will be about self-driving cars, at least according to Alphabet (formerly Google), the company in the vanguard of that technology. But when that future will arrive—whether it’s five or fifty years from now—remains a matter of debate. Not in dispute is the fact that many people lose their independence when they stop driving.

Orlov, for one, is skeptical that baby boomers (now ages 52 to 70) will be clamoring for cars they cannot steer and accelerate any time soon. “These are people who love driving cars,” she says, and are still buying plenty of them. She points to industry reports showing people over age 50 buy more and fancier cars than younger people.

The good news is that the technologies that make self-driving cars thinkable, including automatic braking and other crash-avoidance systems, are making driving safer for younger and older humans alike, Orlov says.

And for those who can no longer drive safely? App-based services such as Uber and Lyft are making a major effort to market their ride services to seniors. In New York City, a Lyft pilot program ferries seniors to medical appointments but does not require the use of a smartphone—still a barrier to some older adults. Both companies and some of their smaller competitors offer additional services for people who need special assistance.

Connection

People need people. “The data is very clear that reduced contact with friends and family leads to depression and to an increase in mortality and (illness),” Lindeman says.

And, as any grandmother with a Facebook account knows, it can be rewarding to connect with friends and family online. But not everyone is connected. As of 2014, most adults over age 65 did not have smartphones or tablets, most were not using social media, and 41 percent were not online at all, according to the Pew Research Center. There were big differences, though, by income, with 90 percent of those with household incomes above $75,000 going online. And there were telling differences by age. Nearly 75 percent of 65- to 69-year-olds were using the internet versus just 37 percent of those over age 85. 

That connectivity gap has inspired the launch of simplified devices aimed at the oldest adults. For the past two years, Joan Schissel, 84, of Ossian, Iowa, has been using one, a tablet computer called the grandPad®. It comes preloaded with easy-to-use apps for voice and video calls, email, photo sharing, games, and music. Family members get smartphone companion apps to stay in touch. Schissel, who had never used a computer, says she uses the tablet every day. She communicates with and looks at photos from many of her 10 children, 21 grandchildren, and 17 great grandchildren. “There’s nothing to it,” she says. “Just press a button or a picture and you get whatever you want.” (Full disclosure: One of Schissel’s sons-in-law is the co-founder of grandPad.)

But in the future, not all connections will be with fellow humans. Robots and virtual assistants—such as Apple’s Siri—will be configured to assist older adults at home. Even pets will go robotic. Some nursing homes already offer residents cuddle time with a $6,000 robotic seal named Paro. And Hasbro has just introduced Joy for All, a $100 robotic cat for seniors.

Potential Downsides

OK, you might ask, but what’s lost when our parents or we are left alone with robot cats and digital nurses? And what about privacy? After all, much of the emerging technology involves some kind of monitoring. “Intuitively, most people don’t like to feel that they are being watched or monitored,” says the AARP’s Bradwell. Concerns about privacy and the human touch need to be part of any conversation about potential benefits, he says.

When the right conversations happen, the results can be surprising says Katy Fike, co-founder of Aging 2.0, an organization that connects tech start-ups with senior consumers and the senior care industry. She recently tested some sensors in the home of her 80-something parents during several weeks when her dad was home alone. They had agreed that a sensor on the cabinet where he keeps his coffee would send her a signal when he was up for the day. “What happened was that suddenly, my dad thought of opening that cabinet as a way to say ‘hi,’” she says. “Sometimes he would walk by the cabinet and open it just to say ‘hi’ to me in the middle of the day.”

A little reciprocity also goes a long way, Fike says. While she routinely tracks her parents’ whereabouts with a feature on her iPhone, they track her too, she says. “My dad gets a kick out of seeing where I am each day.” While Fike says she can’t imagine a family in which such interactions replace phone calls and visits, “technology is not going to change a good daughter into a bad daughter or a bad daughter into a good daughter.”

Rita Libla, 80, of Yuba City, California, says the GreatCall emergency alert pendant she wears, whether she’s at home or out driving, is tracked by her grown children and that’s fine with her. “To me it’s a comfortable feeling. It’s not an invasion of privacy. I just think it’s a good thing that they know where I’m at.”

Of course, we are not just worried about what we are sharing with our families. We worry about what we might inadvertently share with the world. In a fully wired life, “those sensors are always on, and you are trusting what is happening with all of that data,” Bradwell says. But, he says, the reality is that we are exposing ourselves to some risk every time we swipe a credit card or turn on a smartphone. “Your location is being tracked all the time, and you have to consider what the value is to you,” he says. Over time, he predicts, we will worry less about the downside.