The number of people age 65 or older is projected to more than double by 2060 in the United States, to more than 98 million, according to the Population Reference Bureau. By that time, senior citizens will exceed 21 percent of the population in 94 countries, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. Technology to help keep seniors healthy and safe while maintaining their independence is more important than ever.
IEEE Senior Member Jim Osborn told The Institute the three most pressing issues facing the elderly and how technology can address those challenges. Osborn, an elder-care consultant, helped create the Quality of Life Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh.
Early wearable devices such as pendants with large call buttons that the user pressed to alert first responders were prone to false alarms, Osborn says. The wearable couldn’t determine whether the user fell or the device was dropped. Plus, most were cumbersome and inconvenient to wear, and it was too easy to forget to put them on. They were not embraced by seniors; those who tried the devices typically abandoned them after a while.
Today’s devices are smaller—some look like jewelry—and they are easier to remember to wear. Residents in some nursing homes, for example, wear the sensors on a lanyard that also holds their room key.
Other modern devices don’t involve wearable technology. Geophone sensors are embedded in the floor to detect vibrations. “The sensors are getting better at distinguishing the signal of a person falling from background noise,” Osborn says.
Home video cameras are another option, but installing cameras is still met with some resistance, mainly over privacy concerns, Osborn notes.
Another solution is developing improved methods to detect if a person’s risk for falling has increased. Some of the factors that lead to falls are predictable, such as a change in medication or blood pressure. In such cases, better communication and coordination among members of an elderly person’s care team can help a great deal, Osborn says. Wearable sensors can measure subtle changes in the person’s gait and posture—which are observable warning signs. Sensors embedded in shoes, for example, can gather data about the gait.
Automated pill dispensers and devices that remind patients to take their medications are plentiful, but they’re generally not covered by Medicare, the U.S. federal health insurance for people 65 or older, Osborn notes. Nor are such dispensers a silver bullet. Forgetting to take the pills on schedule is not the only problem, Osborn explains. Seniors might choose not to take their prescription for several reasons, including the high cost and unpleasant side effects, like an upset stomach. And sometimes the patient will start to feel better and make the mistake of thinking that he can stop taking the medication altogether, Osborn says.
There’s now a twist on the automated dispenser that addresses those issues: a pill bottle with a cap that contains a microprocessor and sensors to log when the bottle is opened. The information is sent wirelessly to a hub in the person’s home, then communicated to caregivers via text or email, or to a website that the caregivers can check.
Even if a person has such a dispenser, however, the patient might not actually swallow dispensed pills.
Technology can solve that problem, too. “A few years ago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of tiny electronics that can be incorporated into a pill,” Osborn says. “When it reaches the stomach, a chemical reaction triggers a signal to a receiver in a patch worn on the patient’s midsection, thereby providing definitive proof to a caregiver that the patient actually swallowed the pill.” The technology isn’t on the market yet, but it’s coming soon, he says.
Maintaining a healthful lifestyle
To stay healthy, seniors need to get enough exercise, eat well, and get adequate sleep, Osborn says. Fitness trackers and other technological solutions can monitor such things, but those products are being marketed to young fitness buffs, he notes.
Only recently have the device makers begun to sell products that address seniors’ concerns, he says. “Seniors tend to prefer technology, like sensors, that looks like other items they already wear, such as clothing or wearables that look like jewelry,” he says. “Devices also need to be easy to take on and off, and must be convenient to recharge if they’re going to be attractive to the senior market.”