Grandma doesn’t own a smartwatch yet, but in the near future you may catch her sneaking a glance at her notifications during your weekly brunch.
Today’s seniors have been living with technology for a long time. They aren’t exactly digital natives, but Baby Boomers like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates launched the digital arms race that turned Silicon Valley into the tech hub it is today.
The Rise of Wearables
Smartwatches and fitness trackers haven’t broken new ground in a while. Functions have stayed the same and battery life is still frustrating, but innovation tells us these little devices will keep getting smaller. And as they shrink in size, they’ll become an even bigger part of our lives. We’ll be connected when we walk, when we eat and even while we sleep.
If this sounds scary, think of the benefits wearables could have on Grandma. What if the jacket she wears on her afternoon walk could alert her to a coming rainstorm? Or how about shoe inserts that help her avoid literal bumps in the road?
Bluetooth-connected Lechal insoles turn any shoe into a vibrating virtual map. Using GPS to determine the best route, vibrations on the sides of the shoes indicate when the wearer should turn or stop to avoid hitting an obstacle.
In addition to smart shoes, next-generation wearables will come equipped with voice assistants, personal coaching and longer battery life. Some wearables, like the Matrix Powerwatch, even run off of body heat.
Tomorrow’s Technology, Today
Forget setting alarms on your smartphone, Pillo is a new robot that uses facial recognition, machine learning and video conferencing to manage vitamins and remind seniors to take their meds. A “doctor, pharmacist, fitness coach, search engine and nutritionist all in one,” Pillo dispenses the right meds at the right time, and reorders new supplies before they run out.
Pillo’s cofounder developed the product after his father died from not taking his medicine properly — a fate that befalls 125,000 seniors each year. And despite its cute, anthropomorphized face, Pillo’s cofounder sees his invention at the forefront of a healthcare revolution. Wearables, big data and analytics are just the start.
Other jaw-dropping innovations include the Aura Powered Suit, a lightweight, full-body wearable that improves physical abilities and supports movement, and Welbi, a smartphone-sized box that can detect your heartbeat from across the room.
Based on technology developed by NASA to locate natural disaster victims, Welbi give families the ability to monitor their loved ones’ heart and breathing rates from a distance — alleviating those annoying status-check phone calls some seniors find invasive. Tailor-made for the more than 12 million seniors aging in place, one day Welbi could diagnose diseases from a distance and detect changes in vital signs before things go wrong.
Tech That Transforms Lives
Why the need for these new devices? Aging Boomers have fewer children and they are more geographically spread out than ever. This paradigm shift will alter caregiving as we know it — creating both the need and demand for solutions that help seniors stay independent for as long as possible. In the next five years, unobtrusive health sensors and wearables will become mainstream for seniors.
And as technology improves, the gap between lifespan and healthspan will narrow. Technology has been great at keeping people alive, but it will soon focus on making people healthier. Within 10 years, next-generation devices will support older adults who want to age in place — using universal design to make homes and communities more livable and accessible for all.
In one such instance, a former Oculus engineer launched Open Water, a startup that wants to help doctors detect cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s and even Alzheimer’s through affordable, wearable MRI machines. Sound far-fetched? Before the advent of the cardiac pacemaker, implantable technology that could reset heart rhythms must have seemed like a pipedream. But by mapping brainwaves and thoughts, someday Open Water’s technology could create brain-prosthetic interfaces for amputees and stroke sufferers.
Even further down the road, seniors will benefit from individualized “care pathways” that analyze a person’s genetic makeup, their drug reaction and metabolization rates and aggregated health outcomes to create personalized care and treatment plans. And even further in the distance, robots could play a role in the more difficult aspects of caregiving, such as lifting and turning people over.
While today’s seniors are more receptive to incorporating wearable technology into their health journey, the future will be about reaping benefits from all of this health data.
Forget Life Alert bracelets. In the future, senior living providers like Brookdale could keep an eye on their residents through wearables that monitor activity levels, stress levels, body fat, heart rates and blood oxygen levels. These same wearables could also track sleep, location, personal care routines and medicine schedules — sending out alerts to caregivers and family members if anything abnormal happens.
The future of senior living will have a very technical side, but tomorrow’s devices will be cloaked in humanity — emphasizing the power of human connections to counter the devastating health effects of isolation among seniors.
A Brave New World for Aging
From Elli-Q, a new artificial companion designed for seniors, to wearables that blur the lines between man and machine, aging is about to be turned upside down. And wearables are just the start.
For many, this brave new era can’t come fast enough. A fourth of all Americans say they would prefer to be cared for by a robot, compared to an astounding third of all young people. Many see this robot-based attention as judgement-free care that won’t burden their loved ones.
Whether the future of aging is digital, wearable, robotic or some mixture of all three, senior lives dramatically improve when society honors the truths about aging — creating technology to alleviate the burdens encountered along the way.
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