Aging at Home, Part 1: Home May Be Where the Technology Is
Medicare started off the year putting into action a program to encourage more doctors to discuss end-of-life and advance care plans with patients. While the details tend to focus on the hard choices on the far side of those arrangements, new and near-future technologies could preserve life's simple pleasures on their front end.
End-of-life conversations are meant to cover more than the final days or weeks when many, or even all, of an individual's needs have to be fulfilled by others, often in an institutional setting.
There's a growing movement to include in those discussions options for the elderly and infirm to "age in place." For those looking to spend as much time as possible in their familiar home surroundings, technology has been playing an increasingly important role.
For example, tech tools can preserve familial bonds remotely, while ensuring that specialized care is a call or click away.
For those who are open to considering them, new technologies can be a critical component of end-of-life discussions, suggested Perry Price, CEO of Revation Systems.
"Including these ideas into end-of-life conversations is critical for understanding the desires of a loved one," he told TechNewsWorld. "It is important to know the preferences of how they want their assets or living environments to be either prolonged or changed."
Living environments can play an important role not only in an individual's sense of comfort and well being, but also in life expectancy.
Social isolation can have an adverse impact on health, for example, and it has been associated with an increased likelihood of premature death, noted Jeff Krueger, CEO of SAFE HOMECARE.
"Thus, while technology provides very important tools to support the care needs of the aging baby boomer population, all stakeholders who are impacted -- the senior and the support family -- are well served by an integrated care plan availing the senior of technology advances and, critically, personal one-on-one interactive caregiver resources," he told TechNewsWorld.
While senior citizens may long for simpler times, many of them aren't letting nostalgia be a roadblock to the information super highway and all of the smart things connected to it.
About 85 percent of respondents aged 50 years and older said in a recent Basksurvey that technology was helping them live in their homes longer than they otherwise might be able to.
"The vast majority of seniors and boomers in their homes -- people over 50 -- are using technology to stay connected to their families," Bask CEO Jim Dunn told TechNewsWorld.
Technology was credited with helping about 68 percent of senior survey participants stay in contact with family members they weren't able to visit in person, the company found.
"So we looked at some different technologies," Dunn said. "One of the fastest-growing trends for the 50-plus group is the adoption of mobile, smart mobile."
With regular operating system upgrades and the changes they bring, the adoption of mobile devices has introduced it own set of anxieties and frustrations for seniors. About 81 percent of the Bask survey's respondents indicated that they would use technology more often if they had someone to assist them.
"Learning how to use technology properly and securely is a scary prospect for a lot of people who see technology coming at them at an increasingly fast pace," Dunn said.
While companies like Bask work out front with elderly on hardware and software, there are massive investments being poured into technology in the field of home health and the healthcare industry at large, noted Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.
"We can pretty much monitor people in real time these days, which is great," he told TechNewsWorld. "It helps not only understand what going on with them -- but provides a lot of early warning analysis."
If there are irregularities with heart rate or worrying drops in blood sugar, for example, monitoring systems can notify the individual as well as family members and healthcare professionals.
"The biggest challenge, though, is overcoming the daily activities -- the food preparation, the house maintenance," McGregor said. "It's all of that. Sometimes the manual stuff is really the most difficult part of it."
However, a lot of traditional developers of medical systems, such as GE, have been putting boatloads into other approaches to using technology to transform healthcare, McGregor noted.
"One, it offsets a lot of health costs," he said. "And two, this is a huge growth industry, especially as populations age in the U.S., and in Japan and other industrialized nations. There's a tremendous amount of money being put into this."
Efforts to improve home healthcare with technology, and breakthroughs in artificial intelligence will transform society, according to McGregor.
"When you think about it -- if you could take every PET scan, every X-Ray, every MRI, and the diagnosis of whether they were correct or incorrect -- you can create platforms that can actually do analysis of all these scans better than any radiologist on the planet -- and they're working on this."
This points to an automated healthcare future.
"Predictably, technology is playing an ever-increasing role in assisting seniors to age with grace and dignity in the comfort and familiarity of their own homes, particularly with respect to direct health issues and concerns," said SAFE HOMECARE's Krueger.
Yet with all of the powerful new tools, there is still no substitute for the personal attention of a licensed caregiver for seniors who require assistance with daily living, he pointed out.
"The care of a smiling, personable, energetic and interactive caregiver with whom a senior develops a warm and meaningful connection is not only gratifying," Krueger remarked, but also "has a positive impact on the health of the senior."