The Internet of Things for seniors

By Anthony Brino
09:01 AM

For many of the nation’s 45 million (and growing) senior citizens, aging in place is alternatively a much sought-after way to live out the golden years or the default option for those with modest incomes. To make aging in place work, especially for baby boomers, advocates and the government may need to help nurture new technologies that address major problems for seniors. 

As the population of Americans 65 and older starts off an expected doubling, to more than 80 million, by 2050, the number of households headed by someone 70 or older is set to soar 42 percent, to 28 million, by just 2025, according to research by the the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. 

Almost 90 percent of American seniors, including those older than 70, want to age in place at least for the next five to ten years of their lives, according to a survey by the American Association of Retired Persons. 

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Almost as many are confident that they can do so without modifications to their home. But, just like some fathers and grandfathers we know may overestimate their ability climb a 20-foot ladder to clean the gutters every fall, some seniors may need more help than they admit. And in any case, what about those who want to live in their homes past age 80?

[From sister site mHealth News: Roundup of 10 mobile apps for evidence-based medicine.]

Stairs, showers, bathrooms, basements and more can turn into inconveniences and hazards for seniors, threatening their independence and, worse, leading to injuries. There are the challenges of managing chronic conditions and associated medications, finding reliable transportation for people who don’t drive or have access to mass transit and, among the most pernicious factors, the isolation. Many seniors outlive their partners by years; others do not have family or friends nearby.

Before digital health rose to the prominence it occupies today, there were some good solutions for seniors who wanted to keep their independence. The company Life Alert Emergency Response was founded in 1987, selling a wearable device wirelessly connected to a telephone that lets seniors call emergency responders in the event of a fall or emergency.

But today, social media, the sharing economy and advancing digital technology could improve aging in new and better ways, from connecting caregivers and volunteers and helping seniors find companionship, to smart devices that remind seniors to turn off the stove or let adult children monitor their parent’s wellbeing.

Technologists are starting to see the possibilities, especially for the coming wave of retiring baby boomers. Gerontologist Katy Fike and business consultant Stephan Johnston saw an opportunity to rethink aging with technology in 2012 when they founded Aging 2.0, which has since become a generator program for early stage aging tech companies.

Among them are BrainAid, whose executive function apps automate and guide tasks for seniors with cognitive problems, and True Link, which lets seniors delegate small financial purchases for groceries and necessities to personal aids through debit cards, a system aimed at streamlining shopping help while guarding against fraud.

There’s also a company called Lively, a maker of small sensors that wirely monitor seniors’ activities via doors, cupboards and the like, letting caregivers check in on them, albeit in a very low-impact way.

Lively, a company in the Cambia Health Solutions family, the same holding company that owns Regence Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oregon, represents something of a convergence between social and remote monitoring technologies. Both seniors and caregivers — often adult children — can track the activity and share messages or photos.

[mHealth News: Tapping mobile tools to reach Medicaid populations.]

“It enables the 40- to 65-year-old generation concerned about aging parents or family members to put sensors in the home, on the refrigerator, on a utensil drawer,” Richard Popiel, MD, Cambia’s chief medical officer, told Government Health IT an interview last year. “It’s not a camera, you don’t feel spied on. But it gives the family members peace of mind that the activity levels in somebody living independently are still the level that they should be.”

Both Medicare and Medicaid are in search of more cost-effective, patient-centered options to servicing beneficiaries, with billions of dollars being invested in new home- and community-based care models for frail and elderly Medicare-Medicaid “dual eligibles,” who collectively cost some $300 billion while receiving what has long been considered fragmented care.

Between those investments and the movement to age in place, digital and mobile health companies that have heretofore been focusing on quantified selfers could find challenges just as interesting and business opportunities just as large in servicing seniors.

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