- Published on Wednesday, 13 March 2013 01:00
- Written by Greg Hartwell
Photo By: Courtesy of Greg Hartwell
Emerging technologies – like the VideoCare system, above – promote interaction and allow seniors to stay in their homes as they age. A score of innovative devices on the market aim to prevent social isolation, a major problem that can significantly affect older adults’ physical and mental health.
As the first baby boomers hit 65, many industries are reviewing the demographics with a keen eye on opportunities. One of the key topics of discussion is “aging in place,” which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently and comfortably, regardless of age, income or ability level.”
But the dream of aging in place will be a major challenge for millions of Americans. Over the next 20 years, the 65 and older population will swell 80 percent – from 40 million to more than 72 million in 2030 – and we simply don’t have the human resources to handle that much growth for health care and other needs for the aging.
If history is any indicator, Silicon Valley will once again play a leading role in creating solutions to solve such challenges. The majority of the emerging solutions can be categorized into four areas: medical and health care; health and wellness; monitoring, security and home automation; and social and communication needs.
Medical and health care
Older seniors receive a significant amount of costly care in the hospital rather than through a physician with recovery at home. With the cost of a hospital bed per day conservatively estimated at $3,500, excluding any medical services, clearly a change is needed in medical service delivery.
The primary way to reduce hospitalization is to decrease the length of stay, providing effective recovery at home rather than skilled nursing and preventing unnecessary hospitalization.
Medicare and health insurance companies will lead the way in chronic disease management. Simple diagnostic, passive devices are being developed for home use that allow for the collection, transition and diagnosis of symptoms and key hospitalization risk indicators.
Dozens of emerging technologies offering in-home monitoring of vital signs and other symptoms will play a proactive role in managing diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, among a variety of health problems. And the beauty of many of these solutions is that they are relatively passive and thus more prone to adoption than other technologies that require active patient interaction.
So-called tele-health solutions are another promising area. Many hospitals are beginning to test solutions that allow patients to skip the interim step of a skilled nursing facility by sending a patient home to recover, but with remote monitoring.
El Camino Hospital’s Senior Health Center is testing one such solution – a mobile robot called vGo. vGo is sent home with a patient while medical personnel remotely control the device to gather data – both visual and digital – to foster faster recovery and prevent relapse.
Evolving technology holds the promise of providing world-class care to patients regardless of where they live – with better outcomes at greatly reduced costs.
Health and wellness
Closely related to medical technologies are proactive solutions that will be more consumer driven, paid for out of pocket and require more active participation from the individual, including smartphone applications.
Many of these health and wellness applications require active participation, so adoption in the senior population may be slower. But over the next five to 10 years, older adults should become more comfortable with such technologies and embrace them for better quality of life and healthy living. Other examples include:
• Medication management – the average senior takes 14 different medications.
• Cognitive exercise: electronic games and puzzles such as Words with Friends, Bridge and Lumosity.
• Exercise and rehabilitation: Wii and Xbox for mobility and stroke recovery.
Monitoring, security and home automation
This category is a bit of a catchall for several different areas that overlap and complement each other, including:
• Personal emergency response systems: Lifeline and 5 Star Response.
• GPS locators.
• Activity monitors and sensors: motion detectors, bed or chair sensors and sleep monitors.
• Wireless cameras.
Many of these monitoring devices are for safety rather than medical applications. These can be very useful, but privacy issues are a concern for many seniors. While they hold promise, it may be that the next generation is more comfortable with such technology.
Social and communication needs
Social isolation is a major problem for seniors, one that significantly affects their physical and mental health. Services like Facebook, FaceTime, Skype, Instagram and others have dramatically changed social interaction in younger generations. Over time, such services could vastly improve communications between seniors and their families and friends, including:
• Simplified cellphones like Jitterbug.
• Smartphones and tablets. Although adoption is still low among seniors, the devices hold great promise for photo sharing, online games like Words with Friends and video chatting with Skype or FaceTime.
• VideoCare, Independa and other services focused specifically on devices for the older population.
As with most technologies, many mistakes will be made along the way. But in the long run, technology and Silicon Valley minds will lead the way, making the dream of aging in place a reality for millions of Americans, regardless of geography, income level or ability.