Designing better tech for seniors means simplifying tech for everyone

Experts say that designing technology for everyone and creating customization features for smaller populations are key in making better solutions for seniors.
By Mallory Hackett
02:13 pm
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The U.S. population is getting older every year as more adults from the Baby Boomer generation hit the 65-and-older milestone.

Since 2010, the 65-and-older population has grown by over a third (34.2%), according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and by more than 3% between 2018 and 2019. This growth means that by 2030, one in every five Americans will be of retirement age.

As the U.S. population becomes grayer, many stakeholders have turned towards technology and digital health solutions as ways to keep older adults healthy and independent.

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“It’s critical that we get it right for so many reasons,” Dr. Joe Kvedar, senior advisor of virtual care at Mass General Brigham, said. “In 2050, there will be twice as many people on the planet over 65 as there will be under five, and it just keeps getting more and more dramatic, because, luckily, we are living longer. But as we live longer, we need more healthcare services.”

A LOOK AT SENIORS TODAY

The term "senior" encompasses a large swath of the population. By Medicare standards, "seniors" refers to anyone over the age of 65, and AARP defines "older adult" as anyone over 50.

However, when thinking about who the “real” seniors are, it’s a bit older than both of those definitions, according to Laurie Orlov, the principal analyst at Aging and Health Technology Watch.

“I have defined a category that I call the ‘real senior,’ and the real senior is 75 plus,” Orlov said.

From her experience as a tech-industry veteran and an eldercare advocate, Orlov said she has found that people aged 50 to 65 don’t really lead a different day-to-day life compared to the 40 to 50 age group.

Even people between 65 and 75 aren’t what most people think of when they picture a stereotypical senior, Orlov said.

“If you were to describe older adults as people who have significant healthcare needs, who consume a lot of the healthcare dollar, who are frail, have mobility issues… people 65 to 75 would say ‘That’s not us,’” she said.

Regardless of age, older adults can and do benefit from using technology, Orlov said. They use technology to communicate with loved ones, to stay up-to-date on news, to monitor and manage their health and safety, to research information, to entertain themselves, and more.

In fact, more than 60% of Medicare-eligible seniors say they’ve embraced technology more during the pandemic, a recent survey from healthinsurance.com reported.

The desire of many seniors to remain independent well into their later years has created an “unprecedented market” for innovation, according to a Rock Health report.

The report notes that, although 77% of people over the age of 55 say they want to age in place, only 50% believe they will, because of barriers such as home maintenance, lack of transportation and mobility, inadequate preparation, and age-related accessibility.

“To meet these new challenges – and opportunities – we need transformative innovation in senior care,” the authors wrote in the report. “Digital health is poised to offer critical solutions.”

BARRIERS TO ADOPTION

Despite the recent uptick of older adults’ use of technology, there are many seniors who don’t actively engage with it.

The barriers that keep seniors from using technology include a lack of instructional guidance regarding how to use it, a gap in knowledge, health-related hurdles like poor eyesight and hearing, and cost, according to a focus group study from Frontiers in Psychology.

“My children just look at a piece of equipment and they're off. My brain is just not built to deal with half of the technology out there,” one of the focus group’s participants said in the study. “I wish I was more the other way, I really do, because I am aware of the being left behind I suppose.”

What keeps many seniors from overcoming those obstacles is a lack of return on investment from using technology, according to Orlov.

“The thing about technology in general, and the reason you use it and I use it, is because the benefits outweigh the hassle factor and the privacy risk,” she said.

So, for example, if the only place a tech-resistant senior can view photos of their grandchildren is on a tablet, it might be worthwhile learning how to use one. The same line of thinking can be applied to hearing aid use, remote-monitoring tools and more, Orlov said.

Other obstacles getting in the way of adoption include the cost of high-speed Internet, complicated user interfaces and a lack of integration and interoperability in many technologies, according to Orlov.

DESIGN FOR ALL, NOT FOR OLD

Like many problems, the issue of seniors' adoption of technology has multiple aspects.  Beyond the barriers of tech adoption, a point that experts say needs to be addressed is the way technology is designed.

The main problem with how tech developers create products targeted at older adults is that the products are designed for “old, not for all,” according to Charlotte Yeh, the chief medical officer at AARP.

She says that technology that’s developed solely for the negative sides of aging, such as fall detection devices, can further the negative stereotypes that come with aging.

“What happens with technology that is designed for old is (and we’ve heard this in focus groups): 'If I actually have to use and purchase the device, I’m no longer older, I am now old,'” she said.

Instead of focusing on building solutions solely to keep older adults safe, Yeh believes technology should be created with the three P’s in mind – purpose, people and possibilities.

Technology built with purpose makes seniors feel useful in society and in their community, according to Yeh.

“We find that if you have a strong sense of purpose, you have fewer heart attacks, better sleep, lower stress hormones, better immune system, lower healthcare costs,” she said.

The second P deals with connectivity among people and reducing social isolation, which is a health problem that affects nearly a quarter of adults over the age of 65, according to the CDC.

Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and even death, according to the National Institute on Aging.

Findings show that technology can be effective in reducing social isolation among seniors and in AARP’s 2020 Tech and the 50+ survey, the most common use of smartphones and tablets was to access apps for social interaction and information sharing.

“As we think of technology, one of the most common uses if you look at older adult usage of technology, is [for] connection,” she said. “You know the most recent AARP tech survey, and that was actually measuring people pre-COVID, but even back then the most common use for technology was not only going for information, but was really for social connection.”

The final P, possibilities, should give older adults a positive view of aging, according to Yeh.

“If you feel useful, valuable, and contribute to society, and if it helps us connect with other people, then our possibilities and our vision for tomorrow become endless,” she said.

Besides the three P strategy that Yeh suggests, experts believe that designing technology for everyone and creating customization features for smaller populations are key in making better solutions for seniors.

“Most technology offerings should be designed for everybody and customized for older people as needed,” Orlov said. “That way you have a big market, and you can also provide service to a small subset.”

She suggests that these customizations should be made to the software, so once the physical device is in the hands of a consumer, they don’t have to worry about upgrading because the company can do it for them.

Examples of products on the market today that Orlov sees adopting this strategy include the Amazon Alexa Care Hub. Instead of creating an entirely new voice command assistant for older adults, Amazon Alexa updated its features to allow users to check in on an aging family member from afar.

These features can include a heads-up when a senior first uses their Alexa device each day, or a warning if no activity is detected by a certain time. Should the family member see cause for concern, they can quickly initiate a phone call or two-way chat through the app.

“That to me is an acknowledgment from a big player like Amazon that there are older adults out there that they may have some different needs, and they have dabbled their way into corners of that market with their product line that is voice-enabled,” Orlov said.

Another example is the BUDDY app from LiveFreely. The app works with Fitbit smartwatches and other wearables to help seniors and their caregivers take greater control of aging.

“Wearable devices are becoming more ubiquitous, so we thought ‘Why create our own wearable device? Everybody’s got the ones already out there,’” said Daniel Jue, the CTO and cofounder of LiveFreely. “We decided to use other people’s platforms, like Apple, like Fitbit, like Garmin, and create the app for their already consumer-ready products.”

The way the system works is by downloading the app onto both the senior’s smartwatch and the caregiver’s phone. From there, the BUDDY app detects and alerts if the wearer falls, keeps track of the user’s medication schedule, monitors the wearer’s vital signs and can notify caregivers if the user wanders away from home.

All of these features and more can be viewed on the online dashboard, which can be shared among caregivers and healthcare professionals.

“Our goal is to give everyone this little Iron Man suit ... that they can have to help make life easier for them, to make them powerful and give them the peace of mind that they can live life the way they want,” said Arthur Jue, the CEO and cofounder of LiveFreely.

What’s more is that designing technology in this way has the potential to help younger people as well.

“Because it’s not just the 70-year-old that complains, but frankly my niece in her twenties complains about making it really simple and easy to set up,” Yeh said. “So if we design for the older adult population, everyone’s going to love it.”

This way, as technology continues to change and innovate, it will remain usable for everyone.

“What’ll happen with technology is that technology will evolve and will outpace the ability to keep up with it, because what will happen is as you get older. People start to like what they have,” Orlov said. “So that’s the problem – and it’s an opportunity.”

 

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