It’s almost overwhelming how much the world has changed in just the past three years—and it’s safe to say that the pandemic is quite possibly the most disruptive event of the entire decade. Whatever the ‘new normal’ ends up being when the pandemic finally ends, we can be certain that it will look nothing like what came before. Technology has evolved to such an extent that there’s no going back to the way things were before.
What exactly does any of this have to do with elder care?
More than you might expect, actually. From the added convenience of smart devices to the increased access to care brought on by telemedicine, it’s no exaggeration to say that we may be standing on the verge of a technological renaissance. At the most basic level—relatively speaking—there’s convenience.
Smart home devices allow seniors to control everything from their thermostats to kitchen appliances. Adjustable beds that can be configured entirely through a companion app. Virtual assistants help manage everything from doctor’s appointments to medication schedules.
But it goes well beyond that.
Wearable technology provides physicians and caregivers with an active, real-time picture of a senior’s health. Advanced telemedicine platforms offer access to specialists who might otherwise be impossible to reach. Software that helps home caregivers meet a higher standard of care than ever before.
It’s a world where seniors enjoy greater autonomy, more ownership over their health, better comfort, improved convenience, and safer living conditions. Yet even these use cases only scratch the surface of what might be possible—virtual reality doctor’s appointments, fully autonomous robot assistants, and so much more.
But we’re getting off track. Let’s refocus on the available tools and platforms for elders and caregivers. Let’s look at how technology can help improve elder care—and why we need it.
The technology for telemedicine has existed for quite some time. However, it wasn’t until the pandemic that it saw more widespread adoption. It’s no exaggeration to say that telehealth received a shot in the arm thanks to COVID-19.
And what followed was one of the most rapid uptakes of new technology healthcare has ever seen. This was due at least in part to several interconnected factors:
- An improved patient experience, with faster consultations, more convenient appointments, and streamlined scheduling.
- The capacity of telemedicine to address long-standing health inequalities by providing healthcare services to communities in which they were previously inaccessible.
- The potential for more informed and effective diagnoses, as physicians can more readily confer with colleagues should they encounter health conditions with which they are unfamiliar.
In broad strokes, there are three primary categories of telemedicine.
The patient uses a combination of wearable technology and self-reporting to allow their physician to monitor their health remotely. Remote monitoring is most commonly used to manage conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It typically incorporates self-testing to some extent, as well.
Arguably the most streamlined telehealth service, store-and-forward typically doesn’t require the patient to meet with a clinician at all. Instead, the medical practitioner is forwarded relevant patient information for analysis. The main drawback of store-and-forward telehealth is the potential for misdiagnosis, as the physician never meets the patient for any sort of examination.
This is typically what most people think of when you mention telehealth. A patient meets remotely with a physician, typically over the phone, through video chat, or via a specialized client. The nature of the care they receive varies considerably, and may include any of the following:
- Pharmaceutical advice
- Nursing assistance
- General medical guidance
Aside from the clear benefits of more accessible care, evidence suggests that telemedicine has a great deal of potential in treating older adults with dementia. A brief published by Frontiers in Neurology notes that although barriers exist around access and digital literacy, telemedicine nevertheless addresses multiple complications in elder healthcare, particularly around travel. Telehealth also shows great promise in fields such as geriatrics.
Adding to the above, the improved access to specialist care is another significant benefit for seniors, particularly those who may be struggling with a rare health condition.
The Internet of Things
In many ways, modern homes almost feel like they jumped straight off the pages of a science fiction book. We have smart lights and Internet-connected kitchen appliances. We have intelligent virtual assistants that can learn our schedules and preferences to provide us with tailored guidance.
We have smartphone apps that allow us complete control over our thermostat.
It’s not hard to see how these innovations would be helpful for a senior citizen. By allowing them to remotely control elements within their home, IoT provides elders with far greater autonomy and independence than would otherwise be possible. Safety and security are also potential benefits of this technology.
The widespread availability of wireless cameras could prove instrumental in rooting out cases of elder abuse amongst home caregivers. The kind of people who engage in this type of victimization are generally smart enough not to do it when they know they’re being watched. And if you want to catch them in the act, there’s a wide selection of Internet-connected hidden cameras you can also explore.
There are also multiple smart home security systems and access control solutions, ranging from Internet-connected home security and automation systems to smart doorbells and door locks.
Wearable tech is tied closely to both the Internet of Things and telehealth, but distinct—and important—enough to warrant its own category. In part, this is because the potential use cases are so broad. We’ll start with the most basic, patient monitoring.
Fitness watches are something of a starting point for this, capable of monitoring basic details like activity level, heart rate, and bloody oxygen. Medical-grade monitoring tools are also available, capable of tracking virtually everything about a patient’s well-being. Such monitoring tools can serve another purpose beyond keeping patients on track with their treatments.
Most of us remember Life Alert and its ilk — the wearable necklace that allowed you to press a button and summon medical assistance. Imagine a tool like Life Alert, but instead of requiring manual intervention, it automatically transmits a call for help when a specific condition is met, such as abnormal blood oxygen or shallow breathing.
Many of these devices also include a built-in global positioning unit, allowing emergency responders to quickly locate an injured senior.
GPS serves another essential purpose, as well. As noted by the Alzheimer Society, wandering is a common behavior among individuals experiencing any form of dementia. Given that disorientation is also a common symptom of the condition, it’s all too easy for an elder experiencing even mild dementia to become lost.
With high-end GPS technology, a lost senior can quickly be located and brought back to safety.
Last but certainly not least, there are smart medication systems. Ranging from simple smartphone apps to pills with built-in digital sensors, this set of medical devices and tools—collectively known as smart medication adherence products—serve a dual purpose. They provide patients with guidance and reminders on their medication regimen while looping in physicians to monitor the patient’s health.
In broad strokes, there are five types of smart MAPs (six if one includes smart pills):
- Pill Boxes.
- Blister Packages.
- Storage Boxes.
Most modern medication adherence products also connect to a companion app, enabling additional configuration options while providing reminders on dosages. Some also contain specialized locks or seals that only open at a prescribed time. They may also be secured with additional measures such as a PIN, facial recognition, a passcode, or even voice biometrics.
This reduces the chance that a patient might overdose on their medication while also keeping it out of the reach of anyone attempting to take it for themselves.
We have already briefly touched on the idea of wearable technology. Connected implants take that idea a step further. Imagine, for instance, if your pacemaker could monitor your heart rate and blood on behalf of your physician. Or if you could purchase an Internet-connected glucose sensor that would immediately alert emergency services in the event of probable diabetic shock.
The technology to support every one of these use cases already exists. It’s already being used in some circles. And where elder care is concerned, these innovations could prove invaluable, alleviating much of the stress involved in managing chronic conditions.
There’s an app for that.
No, really, there are multiple applications developed with the needs of senior citizens in mind. Alongside companion apps for smart implants and wearable technology, some tools allow a patient’s family and the physician to monitor their health. Apps also exist to provide seniors with advice and guidance on caring for themselves and will enable them to control their own medical devices.
Hearing aids arguably represent one of the most prominent examples of this in practice. Most modern hearing assistance devices now come packed with many consumer-focused features, all of which are controllable through a smartphone app and basic functionality.
It’s also worth noting that health and wellness are far from the only application categories relevant to an elder’s quality of life—mobile games, social media apps, and e-readers such as Kindle can all provide a dose of much-needed entertainment and fulfillment.
Some Potential Future Tech
Before we wrap up, it’s worthwhile to at least touch on some of what’s coming. Because there’s a lot, and it’s all incredibly promising:
- Neuro Rehab VR. A virtual reality platform designed for at-home physiotherapy. Built-in AI and machine learning allow the platform to tailor its suggestions to each patient’s unique needs and injury while tracking progress over time.
- Toi Labs TrueLoo. Stool samples can provide a physician with incredibly valuable insights about a patient’s health—and this smart toilet seat is designed to assess them based on multiple categories, including size, shape, consistency, follow, and frequency. TrueLoo was designed explicitly with assisted living facilities and senior living managers in mind, though it’s simple to install at home if necessary.
- VitalTech. Launched in June 2018, VitalBand—the latest offering from cloud-based health and wellness platform VitalTech—is an emergency call-out and fall detection smartwatch that monitors heart rate, blood oxygen level, and respiration rate. It can also be configured to provide medication reminders.
- Robots. While they’re not quite at the level of the automated caregivers seen in science fiction, assistive robots are still in their testing phase, primarily capable of basic, pre-programmed actions, with researchers taking direct control for more complex tasks. But as the technology continues to develop, we’ll likely see them put to more advanced uses, potentially even existing side by side with human nurses.
Smarter, More Effective Care
Technology has changed the way we live, work, and play. There’s no reason it shouldn’t also change how we care for our elders. Backed by connected technology and more intelligent tools, caregivers can significantly improve their quality of care while families keep track of said caregivers to ensure their loved one is safe.