The world population is aging. In 2017 there were 962 million people over 60, more than double the 1980 figure, and the proportion of elderly people is growing in almost every country. This has profound implications for society and particularly for healthcare; the need for cost-effective approaches to meeting the medical and wellbeing needs of elderly people has never been so great. But digital technology is rising to meet this challenge, with some (ideas) now going mainstream and others hopefully soon to come into more general use for elderly care. Here are just a few of them.
Carebots to relieve stress and more
For the 50 million people living with dementia, stress, depression and communication difficulties are a big issue. Being with pets can help but isn’t always practical. However a study has shown that spending time with robot pets also led to lower levels of agitation and depression. Now a new generation of ‘carebots’ are coming to the fore. Paro, a cute baby seal robot has already been successfully trialled with dementia sufferers in North Yorkshire and is expected to be approved as a medical device in the UK. Then there’s Tombot a charmingly realistic-looking puppy, who came into being when CEO Tom Stevens saw how upset his mother was when she had to give up her pet dog. Currently listed as a ‘wellness device’ the company hope to get FDA approval in the US so it can be funded by private insurance or Medicare. Meanwhile at the other end of the realism scale is Quoobo, a ‘tailed cushion that heals your heart’. This simple design, essentially a round furry cushion with a wagging tail, still provides something to communicate and interact with, with the ‘wags’ varying in nature according to the way the cushion is stroked, from relaxed to playful.
Easy remote checking on elderly loved ones
Home monitoring systems are another increasingly important area when so many of us live miles away from elderly relatives. The Howz Home Care kit sold by EDF energy includes a home hub, door sensor, motion sensor and smart plug, building a routine after seven days in order to set alerts for unusual activity, for instance opening the front door in the middle of the night or not getting up in the morning; the Just Checking system is similar. The Canary adds a visitor smartcard so that, for instance, a carer can check in and out, while you have the reassurance of knowing they’ve visited as planned. All of these systems rely on motion and other sensors, not cameras or microphones, so there’s no intrusion in terms of privacy. For a couple of hundred pounds and a monthly fee, an elderly person may be able to live independently for longer, rather than have to be moved unwillingly into a care home with all the cost that that entails.
Wearables that report back on health and wellbeing
Basic personal alarms connected to a response team have been around for years and are common in the UK, but some new wearables are upping the game in terms of functionality. VitalBand is a smart watch that can detect heart rate, blood pressure and breathing, as well as automatically detecting falls and sending alerts to family and caregivers. It can also provide medication and medical appointment reminders. There’s another, more subtle advantage, because VitalBand looks like a fashionable smart watch, some elderly people who don’t want to be seen wearing the standard-issue basic-looking personal alarm may be happier to wear it. CarePredict is another wearable that has some of the features of home monitoring systems, tracking time spent in various rooms in the house and even able to sense when someone has spent time in the sun. It uses machine learning to sense deviations from routine and predict problems so caregivers can pre-empt them.
Platforms that bring digital care services together
Philips Cares is a new platform linking existing senior care products together. The idea is that an elderly person, trusted family and friends can form a ‘care circle’, able to stay informed of the subject’s health and welfare through information provided by Philips Lifeline medical alert systems and an automated medication dispensing service. Predictive analytics will help professional caregivers act on potential problems before they occur. Another platform bringing a range of services together in one place is Accenture and Amazon’s Elderly Care Pilot, developed with advice from Age UK. It uses AI to learn user behaviours and suggest activities that have a positive effect on physical and mental health, helping people find local events and friends and providing assignments like daily exercises and learning. It can deal with tasks that may be difficult for the less mobile, like answering the phone and opening the front door, as well as providing easy ways for loved ones to stay in touch and check on activity. As technology capabilities become increasingly sophisticated and with the advent of 5G it seems likely that there’s a strong future for platforms that can provide holistic support for health and wellbeing, as well as creating a steady stream of data that will empower healthcare givers to provide more personalised medical treatment.
Providing healthcare for the elderly is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today but it’s an area where technology can be a force for good. This is a hugely exciting are and we all have a vested interest in finding new digital and technology solutions – one day we’ll be needing them ourselves!