Technology conundrum: How to help seniors age in place without creeping them out

As baby boomers (and now Generation Xers) get older and grayer, the market for technology to monitor their health and help them age at home, rather than in some institution, is a potential gold mine. And that is not lost on vendors wanting a piece of the action.

The big conundrum for these vendors is providing technology that is drop-dead simple to use — i.e doesn’t need a ton of charging, resetting, and other futzing — and doesn’t feel stalker-ish. No one wants to feel as if she’s under surveillance in her own home, but the point of these devices — smartphones, smartwatches, in-home sensors — is, in fact, to watch the senior citizen, albeit with the best of intentions.

First, the obligatory stat: Worldwide revenue generated by home healthcare devices and associated services will soar to $12.6 billion in 2018, up 121 percent from $5.7 billion in 2013, according to numbers released by market researcher IHS in May. [company]IHS[/company] segments the overall market into six buckets — independent living services, consumer medical devices, telehealth, personal emergency response systems (PERS), wearable technologies and health gaming.

home healthcareThere was a flurry of product release news on tech-for-seniors front this week.

First, Lively previewed its new wearable PERS device in the form of a watch that combines a (big) button to reach emergency services, a pedometer and a medication reminder. It also includes “passivity sensors” to detect whether a senior’s activity is reduced and alert designated family or friends when thresholds for activity are not met. And because many older seniors may not have Wi-Fi in their homes, it relies on cellular service along with an in-home hub so that the device works within 1,000 feet of the base. The watch, pictured below, can also be paired with a smartphone to operate when the user is out and about. The unit costs $49.95, with service coming in at another $34.95 per month.

[company]Forrester Research[/company] senior analyst Julie Ask said one key to success in this market is making the technology so easy that it disappears into the woodwork — it needs super-long-life batteries, and a very easy and legible UI, both of which Lively has thought out. Big buttons are key for a population with vision problems and a watch is something that many in this demographic already use so the form factor won’t be jarring. The idea that a wearable device would note when its wearer has gone from 4,000 steps a day to 1,000 or less and ping a distant family member is pretty appealing.

Lively Watch

Wanted: Easy-peasy tablets and smartphones

The [company]AARP[/company] and [company]Intel[/company] announced a new Atom-based Android tablet targeting the 70 million Americans over 50. The RealPad aims to make it easier for non-tech-savvy seniors to initiate video calls with their families and other tasks. The $189 device, which runs Android KitKat, comes with bundled support and an Intel-built RealQuickFix dashboard to show battery life, Wi-Fi connectivity and Bluetooth status as well as easy fixes for common problems.

[company]GreenPeak Technologies[/company], a company out of Utrecht, the Netherlands, has launched Senior Lifestyles, which pairs a home network of Zigbee sensors with a cloud-based data aggregation point that lets families share status data securely over popular social networking apps. If, for example, your grandfather is not detected moving around the apartment for eight hours, a message would go out to family or designated friends via Facebook, WhatsApp, WeChat or QQ, according to the company. The internet of things means that more homes will be connected and monitored by your device of choice and that will be a big theme at Structure Connect next month in San Francisco.

Finally, [company]GreatCall[/company], the company behind the popular big-button Jitterbug phone for seniors, this week launched its new Touch3 smartphone, which can come bundled with access to agents who use the phone’s location data and the user’s personal profile information to assess status in an emergency and send help. There is also 24-7 access to speak with registered nurses or doctors without a co-payment.

Touch3 phones are $169.99 for the device alone. No contract is required but monthly service options including the aforementioned agent and medical services start at $24.99 per month, with data plans starting at $2.49 per month for 20 MB.

The [company]Samsung[/company] Galaxy phone also offers the MedCoach medication reminder app and a Link app for family caregivers, who can download it to their smartphones, access information in urgent situations and receive snapshots of daily activities.

Not all seniors are alike

It’s good that these companies are researching the needs of this rapidly growing population, but there are a couple of caveats. First, it seems that some of these vendors (I’m looking at you, AARP and Intel!) lump all seniors into one humongous “over 50” block. That is a mistake. There’s a huge difference between 50- and 60-somethings, and older seniors in their eighties and nineties. That population is much less likely to be device-savvy and more likely to have vision and hearing impairments. For them, a whole other class of technology is needed — big-buttoned watches and smartphones might be of use, or perhaps a home sensor network connected to loved ones.

Aging in place is a killer application area for the internet of things. If you or your grandmother can control her lights and coffee maker from a smartphone or easy to use tablet, that’s great. It’s even better if you can be discreetly apprised of her level of activity and alerted if she doesn’t take her pills on time.

The dark side of that is making sure that only you or other authorized people are on the receiving end of that data. Seniors living alone with devices silently beaming out information about what they’re doing and when, about their mobility and state of health, also means big-time security issues.  As we know very well by now, claiming something is secure is easy, but ensuring that it is so, is not.

So I’m bullish on devices like the Lively Watch, which is a pretty unobtrusive device that provides a discrete flow of important data to authorized care givers. It seems like the sort of thing a senior might actually wear and forget about. It sure beats installing webcams around the house. But vigilance on the security side is essential.