Column: Want to grow old at home? Technology to the rescue
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Getting old? There's an app for that.
And a smartphone interface. And a tablet device that lets family members monitor your medication schedule, send text messages and share photos.
A major new wave of technological innovation is aimed at helping people stay in their homes as they grow older and require care. These "age in place" products are coming from companies ranging from tech mainstays like Samsung Electronics Co Ltd to much smaller tech startups.
The huge baby boom generation and those that follow will provide a vast and growing potential market in the years ahead. The population of Americans older than 75 will hit 33.3 million in 2030, and 48.4 million by 2050, up from 18.8 million in 2010, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging. As much as 80 percent of boomers say they want to stay in their home as they age, according to AARP research.
Laurie M. Orlov, a tech industry analyst, geriatric care specialist and founder of research firm Aging in Place Technology Watch, predicts that the market will jump from $2 billion in revenue today to $20 billion or more by 2020.
Won't cognitive decline make technology toys useless for many seniors in their eighties and beyond? Perhaps - but Orlov thinks most of the future growth will be in products like remote health monitoring that will not require mastery from their users. "Caregiving technology for family members and healthcare professionals will a big driver," she says.
Not all of these products are aimed directly at seniors. One of the most impressive innovations that has come to market lately is found buried inside one of the hottest smartphones on the market - the Samsung Galaxy S4.
The earlier iteration of this phone - the S3 - already had a 5-inch screen that appealed to older users struggling with poor eyesight. But the S4 adds an "Easy Mode" that transforms it from tech geek's delight into a very simple device. The icons are large and limited to the most-used applications, like the phone keyboard, text messaging and Web browser.
The design of key applications also is simplified, and it is easy to set up a screen with a short list of frequently called contacts (think children and neighbors).
Samsung is not going out of its way to market the S4 to seniors, says Ryan Bidan, director of product marketing for Samsung's mobile division. "There's a stigma on something that is seen as an older person's phone," he says. "People want to be seen as using the same technology as everyone else."
A TABLET FOR SENIORS
Geof Auchinleck took a different tack when he developed the Claris Companion, a tablet device launched a month ago that is specifically designed for seniors living at home who need some level of care and monitoring.
Auchinleck started his Vancouver, British Columbia-based company after a 30-year career in the medical device industry. The idea came to him as he considered the challenges of helping to support his own mother, who is 92.
"It was hard for me to imagine her using the Internet to get information on her medications, or to use email ... The design challenge was how make something that would work for people who really have no interest in technology."
Auchlinlek is convinced that without change, caring for the elderly will swamp the healthcare system. "We can't keep putting older people into institutional care - we can't afford it, and it's not the right thing to do."
Auchinleck's solution is a tablet device for the home that displays automatic alerts on its screen, accompanied by a loud musical chime. When it's time for his mom - who now has a Claris Companion - to take her medication, a message pops up and the chime rings. "That stays on until my mom responds, and if it stays on for four hours, I get a text message telling me something might be going on."
THE GAME-CHANGER: HEALTH MONITORING
In-home monitoring is the biggest potential game-changer for seniors, says Robert Herzog, a New York-based digital media entrepreneur and CEO of eCaring, a healthcare management system for use by caregivers, health professionals and family members.
The Web-based system allows home care givers and patients to enter very detailed information on care, health status and conditions. The system's software can spot changes in vital signs, eating and toileting patterns and medication regimes, and send alerts to care managers, physicians, or family members.
"What you don't know can hurt you," he says. "When you hire an in-home caregiver, you turn the keys over to a stranger and the door closes and the home is a black box - you have no information in any meaningful way. That leads to hospitalizations and rehabs that could have been avoided if the problems had been detected earlier."
(The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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