New Gizmos to Improve Seniors’ Lives

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A couple of summers ago, when my wife and I were visiting my parents,
we noticed they had a large number of messages stored on their
answering machine. They wanted to save some, it turned out, but not
others. “Our machine won’t do that,” my Dad said — whereupon my wife
leaned over, hit one button a couple of times and got rid of the
messages my parents wanted to delete.

It was a sitcom moment, but it also typified how people of different
generations handle technology. As a group, older folks are famously
resistant to technological advances. It’s hard to get an American of
the so-called Greatest Generation even to think about spending money
on a technological upgrade. In contrast, of course, younger Americans
not only want technology to deliver them information, communication
and entertainment but expect it to come quickly, cheaply and reliably.

All of which has brought us, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, to
a massive tipping point: Technology is about to expand through
seniors’ lives as never before. People whose ages today range from 46
to 64 have already embraced the digital age: 62 percent of them have a
broadband Internet connection at home, up from less than 5 percent in
2000; and 43 percent connect wirelessly to the Web, up from zero,
according to the Pew Internet Project. And as boomers head into
retirement, their tech — friendliness is combining with two
megatrends to launch a senior tech boom.

For one thing, over the past few years, smart venture capitalists and
tech companies saw the boomer wave coming and began researching
products that could change the everyday lives of seniors.
Traditionally, assistive technology had been a rather slow-changing
field; aids like power wheelchairs have been around for a decade or
more. But now aging-services tech is nearing science fiction
territory: shoes that help you keep your balance; a scanner that
“reads” text aloud; a voice-activated wheelchair that knows its way
around your home; even glasses that improve your memory while you’re
wearing them. And while Silicon Valley has funded the development of
these kinds of devices, electronics giants such as General Electric,
Intel, LG and Philips are increasingly interested in licensing,
acquiring and marketing them.

Further, individuals, employers and governments are all desperately
seeking some way to avoid the crushing burdens of health care costs
for older Americans, and technology offers a possible way out. If
Americans over 65 could live on their own for just one extra month
before entering a nursing home, the health care system would save $1.2
billion a year. In the early days of such technology, it could sense
whether you had fallen, but now it’s more prognostic, says Brian
Bischoff, CEO of Healthsense, a Mendota Heights, Minn., company that
makes wireless health care communications systems. “Our devices can
detect changes before you fall — in how you’re sleeping or eating or
using the toilet — and help keep you well.” All of which gives people
another choice between moving in with their families or into a nursing

“It helps keep them independent,” Bischoff says.

Exactly what kind of technology are we talking about? Emerging
aging-services products fall into three categories. First, the devices
that help keep you healthy. The two most important are medication
optimizers, which dispense exactly the pills you need when you need
them, and telehealth systems, sensors that automatically transmit key
measures such as your blood pressure and glucose level to your doctor.

Second, there’s technology that promotes safety. These days wearable
devices automatically detect falls and send Web alerts to loved ones
(no button-pressing necessary), as well as relay heart-rate and
body-temperature changes. You can also install motion and
floor-vibration sensors in your home, which will notice if you fall,
walk abnormally or can’t get out of bed. These latter systems
generally run close to $100 a month.

At this point, you might be wondering whether all this monitoring is
disturbingly intrusive. The answer seems to be: not compared with the
alternatives. According to a 2008 study by AARP, seniors are generally
willing to try remote monitors, even those they hadn’t previously been
aware of. And tech can replace even more meddlesome solutions, like
having a nurse checking your bathroom habits every two hours during
the night.

A third kind of senior tech makes modern gadgets easier to use. There
are desktop computers with adjustable displays for users with bifocals
and laptops with simplified Web interfaces. There are cell phones with
large buttons and bright screens. And there’s software that stimulates
your brain with games. Of course, seniors reap real benefits from
being online, too; regular Internet use reduces the rate of depression
among elderly Americans by 20 percent, according to a 2009 study by
the Phoenix Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

To make smarter use of technology, you don’t have to buy robotic
“nurses” that follow you from room to room. (Yes, they do exist.)
Start by making sure you — or your parents — have a wireless
broadband connection at home and an easy-to-use cell phone. Be sure to
have some kind of alert system to summon help in case you fall, and
then talk with your doctors and anyone else involved in your care to
determine what further monitors and sensors would help give you
independence and peace of mind. To understand the full range of what’s
available, it’s important to go beyond what you see in ads or at your
local mall. I recommend reading, which offers news and
reviews of senior-friendly products, and Aging in Place Technology
Watch, which provides analysis of industry trends. And if you’re
really old-school, check out The Senior Sleuth’s Guide to Technology
for Seniors, by David Peterka — yep, a large-print, paperback book.