Taking a stand for senior care

From the mHealthNews archive
By Eric Wicklund

America's seniors are looking for more than easy access to healthcare. This fastest growing segment of the nation's population wants to keep its health.

That requires creativity, said Jo Ann Jenkins, chief executive officer of the AARP. It requires entrepreneurs who can develop technology that allows seniors to live where they want to live, and a healthcare system that pays attention to health and wellness, rather than just waiting for a health crisis to happen.

"The way that people age is changing," says Jenkins, the Monday morning keynote speaker at the mHealth Summit. They're not only living longer, but they're more active – "living in different ways" that require new approaches to health management. 

So let's move away from care plans that emphasize medication, tests and frequent visits and toward health management plans that help seniors stay healthy and allow frequent touches through technology.

[Learn more about the 2015 mHealth Summit.]

America's growing senior population – an estimated 10,000 people are crossing that age 65 threshold every day – is one of the driving forces behind the Internet of Things, and especially the smart home concept. But while there seem to be an endless number of apps, devices and platforms, not many are designed with the senior in mind – or with the senior or caregiver's input.

The "AARP wants to be a part of that conversation," said Jenkins, noting the organization's $40 million innovation fund, designed to support new projects and technology that benefit older Americans.

And that's a challenge. This past July, the organization issued a report on its Project Catalyst Initiative, which surveyed roughly 100 seniors on the latest health and fitness trackers. According to that study, a full 77 percent of the seniors said trackers have the potential to be useful to them, 45 percent reported increased motivation to live a healthier lifestyle, and 46 percent reported actually being more active or eating or sleeping better – but less than half (42 percent) planned to continue using the tracker. In fact, seniors averaged 32 days before they ditched their device.

The seniors surveyed cited four common barriers to long-term adoption of wearable devices: perceived inaccuracies with the data; challenges in finding the instructions for the device or learning how to use it; perceived malfunctions with the device, especially in synching data; and problems with comfort (putting on or wearing the device).

So we need to be creative with our technology, says Jenkins, and put an emphasis on patient engagement. Find out what works, how it works and why it works, rather than just designing something that is expected to work.

And that's not all. Alongside that growing senior population is a similarly large population of caregivers – relatives, friends, home health aides – that needs support as well.

"Caregiving is a huge problem in our country," said Jenkins, who plans to drum up support for them today as National Caregivers Month kicks into gear. "There's a lot of stress. We need to come up with ways to provide care for the caregiver as well."

Jenkins knows she's at the forefront of a growing political and economic force. She's a familiar presence in Washington D.C., lobbying for rights and services from the public sector and urging personal responsibility. And she wants to work with the private sector in designing communities and technology that allow seniors to age where they want to age.

After all, she notes, senior services account for some $7 trillion in economic activity each year, while caregivers chip in an additional $450 billion.

"If that doesn't generate interest in the private sector, I don't know what will," she said.