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IoT for Seniors: How Technology Improves Quality of Life for the Elderly

September 1, 2020

The U.S. population is aging. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans aged 65 and older reached 50 million people last year. By 2030, the number could reach 78 million, which would amount to 19% of the country’s population. The Census Bureau predicts that seniors will outnumber children under 14 by 2035.

With the aging population comes extra pressure on the senior care market and healthcare industry to provide an adequate quality of life for the elderly.

The Census Bureau predicts that seniors will outnumber children under 14 by 2035.
Today 35% of US senior citizens receive some sort of government support, including nursing homes, assisted living, and residential communities. The overwhelming reason for this is that many elderly people do not get long-term care from their relatives.

Much of the medical costs associated with senior care are covered by the government. On average, the government spends $26 thousand per elderly person annually. This is almost three times as much as the country spends on children and the working population.

How could technology help seniors live independently longer, while keeping down government expenditure? Bridging this gap with IoT seems to be promising in many ways: it could minimize operational costs for the healthcare industry, keep the elderly out of care homes, and help them stay active and independent. Here’s proof.

IoT for Seniors: Use Cases

Although older people often struggle with mastering new technology, recent studies show that at least 42% of US citizens aged 65+ own a smartphone. Being able to use a smartphone went from a luxury to a necessity when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing seniors to adopt telehealth solutions to mitigate risk.

IoT for seniors: how do the elderly use technology to cope with daily tasks and communicate with the outside world?

According to a recent survey conducted by healthinsurance.com, more than 60% of Americans aged 65+ are open to using telehealth. More than 40% of the respondents said they have used telemedicine solutions since the start of the pandemic, with 30% saying they’ve used it once a month. Moreover, 25% of seniors are currently using smartphone health apps, and 28% monitor their health using a wearable. The statistics mentioned above indicate that modern elderly people are tech-savvy enough to learn and use smart solutions.

IoT for senior care applications typically revolve around health monitoring, safety and home security monitoring, and interaction with the outside world.

Health Monitoring

At least 80% of seniors suffer from one chronic condition; 68% suffer from two or more. Smart devices—i.e., blood pressure monitors, glucose meters, oximeters, and pill dispensers—can help the elderly manage these conditions. Caregivers obtain data from various devices connected to the cloud, analyze and assess everyday life patterns of senior patients, and detect health problems before they escalate. If any deviation is suspected, a healthcare worker will be automatically notified.

Diabetes

An example of IoT for senior citizens includes connected blood sugar monitors, which help the elderly manage diabetes. When a user’s blood sugar is low, an emergency alert is sent to doctors to call for immediate medical aid.

  • CONTOUR. CONTOUR, a blood glucose monitoring kit by Ascensia, provides accurate glucose testing. The system connects to the CONTOUR™DIABETES app, sends smart alerts to inform users when their blood glucose levels are at a critical high or low, and shares reports with doctors.
  • FreeStyle Libre System. Another renowned gadget is FreeStyle Libre System, a glucose monitoring system consisting of a handheld reader and a sensor worn on the back of the upper arm that measures glucose every minute.
  • Medtronic Solutions. People suffering from type 1 diabetes and many with type 2 need to take insulin regularly. Smart insulin pumps are already changing the way patients live with the disease. An insulin pump is a small medical device programmed to infuse insulin through a catheter placed under the skin. It offers high precision when dosing. Medtronic products, for example, automatically change the amount of background insulin a person receives based on the body's needs, and calculate and recommend precise bolus doses.

Arthritis

IoT solutions are excellent for managing arthritis as seniors suffering from this disease experience difficulties while moving around their homes. IoT devices like smart lighting systems, door locks, and thermostats can minimize the need to move. Some devices have also been created for therapeutic purposes.

  • Quell Wearable Pain Relief Technology Kit. Quell Wearable Pain Relief Technology Kit provides wearable intensive nerve stimulation (WINS) for easing leg, foot, and knee pain.
  • Omron Healthcare Avail TENS Unit. There is also the Omron Healthcare Avail TENS Unit, a drug-free home pain relief system now available on the market. OMRON Avail is a wireless, independent dual channel pad that delivers TENS technology and microcurrent therapy to alleviate acute and chronic muscle and joint pain.

Safety and Home Security

Connected devices help seniors live safer. Over one-third of older adults over 65 experience at least one fall or more each year. Fall injuries are among the 20 most expensive medical conditions. Smart devices from this category measure movement patterns, prevent and detect falls, and track a person’s location. Caregivers can install a motion sensor that sends an alert if no movement has been detected over a long period of time.

Fall Detection and Prevention Systems

Falls are a major reason for injuries, and they are potentially fatal, so smart fall prediction systems can save lives and reduce financial burdens. Creating a fall prediction and prevention system, however, is a challenging task. Existing solutions mainly focus on physiological factors such as gait, age, vision, neurological disorders and cognition. But engineers should address the multifactorial nature of falls including intrinsic and extrinsic risk factors, and perform analysis in real life conditions.

Fall detection systems alert the user and healthcare provider after a fall has occurred, telling them to call for immediate medical aid. They also constantly measure the user’s speed of movement in all directions. Such devices have accelerometers and processors that can tell the difference between regular activity and a sudden fall. Automatic fall detectors are equipped with wearable sensors that can be integrated into belts, watches, and shoes.

  • SureSafe. An example of this is SureSafe—a wearable device that automatically alerts a caregiver when a fall is detected.

Safety Solutions

  • ADT Home Security. ADT Home Security is a system that includes a digital control panel, entryway contacts, a wireless keychain remote, a motion detector, yard signs, and window decals. The panel helps users control their security system, and manage dozens of other Smart Home devices that they can add. Entryway contacts detect attempted break-ins at exit points like doors and windows, and motion detectors cover wide areas of a senior’s home to trigger lights and security cameras.
  • Luna Lights. Luna Lights is an automated lighting system consisting of ultra-thin pressure sensors that detect when users get out of bed. The system immediately turns on small, wireless lights around the home and can also send notifications to a caregiver.
  • Path Feel. A more unorthodox solution is Path Feel—insoles that help improve balance and mobility in elderly individuals by providing vibrational feedback.

IoT devices can also track changes in air quality, temperature, humidity, or carbon monoxide levels, notifying a family member in case of deviations and danger.

Interactions with the Outside World

Technology advancements are also changing the way the elderly interact with healthcare providers, communicate with their loved ones, and perform everyday tasks like grocery shopping. IoT can also help seniors with everyday tasks. For instance, ordering groceries or pills can be as simple as asking a smart speaker to purchase the necessary items and then waiting for them to arrive.

Communication Platforms

  • Grand Care. GrandCare is a sensor-based, proactive, predictive, and preventative home health care and communication platform. An easy-to-use touch screen, which is placed in the residence of the care recipient, GrandCare offers wireless remote activity monitoring and telehealth sensors that alert designated caregivers for further action. The solution includes socialization, activity monitoring, health, and community features.

IoT for People With Special Needs

  • DOT WATCH. Some helpful IoT products are in common use among the elderly with vision or hearing impairments. DOT WATCH (Braille & Tactile Smartwatch), is a wearable device created by the company DOT that outputs text in Braille (and its many versions) on the watch face.
  • Oticon Hearing Aids. The company Oticon manufactures Oticon Hearing Aids. The solution gives constant access to 360-degree sound, reduces background noise, and sends refined sound directly into the users’ ear canals.

Robot Helpers

  • Elliq. There are companion robots currently available that remind the elderly to take medication, help connect with family, allow seniors to play music, and interact. Take for instance Elliq, a smart dedicated sidekick for older adults. The solution is equipped with the following features: messaging, cognitive stimulation and games, curated music and videos, pic sharing, calendar appointments, daily routine reminders as well as a question and answer feature. Communication with robots provides a sense of community, which is imperative for seniors aging alone.

What are the Drawbacks of Using IoT Solutions for Senior Care?

IoT promises independence and aging in place for many elders, and the benefits of smart solutions are endless. However, there are some legitimate concerns about IoT technologies.

Struggling With Technology

First and most critical is the issue of age and technology. It’s quite common for the elderly to become frustrated by confusing, hard-to-decipher apps, devices, user interfaces, and complicated, multi-stage installation and operation procedures. Folks 65+ also find it difficult to adapt to new technology because of health conditions—many of them have visual and hearing impairments that make reading and audio content perception challenging. Color vision also diminishes with age, so seniors may have difficulties distinguishing colors, and need higher contrast between colors.

Seniors often rely on a select few, easily reached features once they figure out how to operate something they find useful. Unless accessing features becomes a regular habit, the elderly may have to relearn how to do it over and over.

To simplify understanding and deliver a compelling user experience, vendors should ensure their product is easy-to-use and navigate. For this, developers should carry out thorough UX research and discovery first, collect functional requirements, and prepare product concept sketches. The next step is defining the target audience and specific end-user groups. Once the groups are selected, engineers may proceed to the design phase with customers in mind. Finally, conducting a series of tests involving seniors is essential for transforming end-user needs into a seamless user experience. This will help determine if the solution is senior-friendly and delivers true value.

Seeking Security

Seniors and caregivers exhibit some distrust of smart aging solutions in terms of security and privacy. Naturally, such products are as vulnerable to hacking as any other IoT device. For instance, a core function of monitoring solutions is to remotely control elders activities, health and safety, collect and transfer these data via the Internet for further examination, and store them in the сloud. The data could be accessed and used by unauthorized third parties, which increases the risks of financial and physical harm. To protect personal and medical data, technology companies should encrypt it, adopt cybersecurity frameworks, implement advanced user authentication and data access control mechanisms, validate and encode all input data, and keep the devices updated using OTA technologies.

To implement IoT solutions for senior care at scale, it is also necessary to integrate the technology systems with EHR software, patient portals, pharmacy software, and appointment scheduling applications. Currently, patient data is stored within siloed medical IT systems. It prevents caregivers from making well-informed decisions about senior citizen's well-being and treatment. Alternatively, IoT devices for vital signs monitoring may collect data in different formats, which also affects medical data interoperability.

Take-home Message

A new CTA survey says health and remote care is possibly the most promising segment of the active aging market. Sixty-four percent of seniors would appreciate monitoring and safety tech, and sixty-one percent said they are willing to use technology that makes life easier and postpones nursing care. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic and healthcare crisis will speed up the adoption of digital technologies, for instance, telehealth solutions. Smart solutions for independent ageing are no exception.

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