How technologies can help the elderly age at home

The country's aging population is embracing new solutions as health IT companies create consumer technologies aimed at assisting seniors.

As the baby boomers roll into their golden years, families and caregivers are looking for ways to ensure that their loved ones are safe and well cared for. For some folks, that will mean regular monitoring for chronic health conditions. For others, it may mean help getting to doctor visits or with daily activities. Technologies that allow individuals to age in place can help to ease the transition to old age by avoiding unnecessary visits to the emergency room or costly nursing home says and improving overall quality of living.

Over the past half century, the number of Americans over age 65 has more than doubled, according to a report published last year by Congressional Budget Office. Medicare outlays were projected to remain at about 3% of Gross Domestic Product until 2018, but then increase on an annual basis through 2026. 

The result will be an upswing in the annual federal budget shortfall of $1.2 trillion in 2026, largely due to spending on healthcare and retirement programs.

Nearly 90% of Americans 65 and older want to remain in their homes as long as they are able, and 80% expect to live out their days in their current residence, according to AARP. Technological advances that can directly benefit the elderly and help promote aging in place include remote sensors, connected scales and blood pressure cuffs and remote glucose monitors. There are also apps for medication adherence, voice command technologies, predictive analytics and telemedicine.

Bringing peace of mind

Using wearables and smart home technology, Reemo captures an individual’s steps, heart rate, sleep patterns and other motions in real-time. If the provider chooses, it can also employ contextual indicators, such as when the light in the bathroom was turned on or how often the door was opened throughout the day. All of these pieces are aggregate in the cloud and presented to the family or care provider through a dashboard.

The combined snapshot signals to providers and caregivers who’s off their baselines and who’s been deviating in a negative way so that they can initiate an intervention or do an assessment, says Al Baker, Reemo’s founder and CEO. The aim, he adds, is to manage people with better data and not have to spend more time or hire more people.

The company recently partnered with Teradata to enable key stakeholders to access and analyze drug interactions, past medical conditions and other health and wellness insights to better predict how someone’s health is trending and intervene before a medical event happens.

To make the solution user-friendly for an older population, Reemo focuses on keeping it simple. “If you can get one or two benefits that are specific and very helpful to the senior, that is an entire reason [for them] to learn a whole new paradigm,” Baker tells Healthcare Dive.

Design features focus on having the right font size, ensuring it communicates audibly and that it vibrates at specified times. The company also makes sure that the features are stripped down so that users don’t get lost in the technology.

“It’s the weather here and maybe where your adult child lives. It’s the events that are happening on [your senior living] campus. It’s the steps and the heart rate and maybe some news headlines. But that’s really it,” Baker says. “We try to make it foolproof in a contained environment so that it doesn’t feel overwhelming to them.”

Filling the caregiver gap

The growth in the elderly population has also increased demand for caregivers. According to AARP, there will be roughly 50 million caregivers in the U.S. by 2020, 45 million of them unpaid family members. At the same time, there will be nearly 120 million people in need of a caregiver.

A number of companies are stepping into this space to fill the gap, including Honor, CareLinx and Hometeam. All three offer something different, For example, Honor acts as an Uber of caregivers, ensuring quick and safe scheduling of care. By contrast, CareLinx recruits caregivers to help with mobility, managing medications, companionship, meals and more. The company currently operates in the nation’s 50 largest markets.

New York-based Hometeam saw an opportunity in the $200 billion home care industry by focusing on workforce empowerment, career orientation and enabling technology. The company leverages a mobile care management technology platform to bring trained professional caregivers to seniors and others needing home care.

“We built proprietary software that’s divided between infrastructure and an in-home platform,” Ashish Prashar, director of policy at Hometeam, wrote in an email. “It automates scheduling, caregiver/client matching, billing and payroll. Our overhead is 80% lower than the rest of the industry, and we invest the savings in higher salaries for our caregivers.”

Each Hometeam patients receives a preprogrammed iPad that remains in the home. The software tracks things like daily activities, meals, medication and exercise programs, ensuring providers and family have accurate and timely information.

The solution has helped to close gaps in care and improve the lives of patients living at home, Prashar says. “We can do this because we identify and track leading indicators of the most critical health concerns for each patient individually.”

The Anywhere Help Button by MobileHelp is a mobile GPS emergency response system that allows users to call for help anywhere and anytime with the press of a button. The medical alert system can be used at home, in case of falls or other emergencies, as well as when the user is out and about.

One startup that is taking on the transportation issue is GoGoGrandparent. Users call in via telephone to get a ride and technology allows them to interface with Uber to get where they need to be on time. GoGoGrandparent will also make sure that the vehicle that shows up is appropriate for the person’s physical needs.

There are also wearable technologies like SmartSox that detect changes in the foot that could lead to ulcers and socks that detect and alert wearers to swelling in the feet, which can be a sign of more serious health problems.

Selling the elderly on technology

The challenge today with aging in place is that there are many individual point solutions that are not integrated, says Jody Holtzman, senior vice president for market innovation at AARP.

“The biggest drawback right now for a lot of technologies is consumer adoption,” he tells Healthcare Dive. “To the degree that all these are separate, it’s another thing that the individual has to adapt to, and we’re not quite at the point where the technologies are adapting to the life and life flow of the individual.”

Holtzman expects to see more vendors combining their solutions on a single platform like Amazon Echo or Google Home over the next five years, as the underlying technology of voice command and voice biomarkers really matures. Like a scene out of the Jetsons, he envisions a grandmother speaking to an electronic voice in the home and arranging a virtual visit with a grandchild on the other side of the world that is scheduled in a digital calendar. All without pushing a button.

“When we get to that point, that’s really when the friction starts to disappear,” Holtzman says. “And when the friction starts to disappear, that’s when adoption is going to take off.”

That’s also the point where providers and families will start to see better health outcomes, he believes, because older people will be less isolated, more engaged and not as likely to suffer from stress and depression, which can lead to more serious health issues.

Two conversations

Another barrier to technology adoption is that many companies assume the adult child is the customer. While they may be the ones purchasing high-tech solutions for mom and dad, it’s the elderly parent who must ultimately agree to use it.

“Many startups don’t understand that there are actually two conversations and two transactions,” says Holtzman. “One transaction may be financial – I’ll pay for it. But it’s no less a transaction with my mother just to allow someone to come into her house and put in new technology.”

The issue, he says, comes down to really understanding the elderly: Who are they? What are their needs? What is their like? And what are their capabilities?

“This a message that AARP has been driving very hard for the last several years … our belief that when you design with the understanding of the most challenging customer, you … end up with better solutions for the entire age continuum.”

Filed Under: Health IT Hospital Administration
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