Seniors are not only looking to technology, but they are also depending on it
by Michael D. Radice
April 19, 2016

The dynamics surrounding the rapid escalation and adoption of technology by our growing senior population is becoming increasingly convincing of one major factor: Seniors are depending on technology. They perceive it as a significant contributor to their quality of life, their ability to self-manage health care and their ability to age in place. Just as the baby boomer generation rewrote the social landscape in the 1960s and 1970s, they will once again rewrite the rules on how health care in the 21st century needs to work. It will be done with advances in technology for health assessment and engagement.

Many observers are now realizing that seniors are actually good at and comfortable with using technology. After all, they as a generation invented it. One simply needs to look at the number of smartphones, Facebook pages, text messaging and in-home computers owned and used by seniors to find that, as a demographic, they do not shy away from technologies that improve their social lives, increase family and community engagement and help them manage their lives and the services they seek.

Bringing Technology Home

This embedded experience and power is now turning toward self-focused health care management. Perhaps more importantly, seniors are looking for health care services and caregiving organizations that embrace technology and, by doing so, embrace them as a vital aspect in the delivery of the services they choose. I predict a very short future for homecare services that are not technologically savvy. I will go on to forecast that a homecare service’s STAR ratings will be heavily influenced by their tech prowess.

Experience with technology in senior care has taught me two things. First, seniors want to easily and unobtrusively assess their current health status through monitoring. They want to know if they are on the road to recovery, stable or in poor health and headed for trouble. Second, they seek a unified resource that connects them easily, immediately and constantly with their caregivers, care plan, medication schedules, family, friends and local community and support services. And they want to do it all in one place, in one technology application.

I am quick to add that, in my discussions with seniors and professional researchers about this second point, there is an emerging dimension that has significant impact on one’s health, and that is social engagement and having a purpose. Perhaps as great as a senior’s physical health status is the impact of the fear of isolation and the loss of having a purpose. Studies are showing clearly that loneliness is a real killer. Factually, loneliness is more of a killer than obesity, alcohol abuse and air pollution. While we are well-versed in those, we are just beginning to learn that having an engaged life is critically important to a senior’s longevity and quality of life. Once again, note how technology—when provided correctly as a medium for engagement—can become a critical lifestyle differentiator and lifesaver for seniors.

The case for purpose serving as a powerful tool in preventive care is presented by Eric Kim and Victor Strecher of the University of Michigan and Carol Ryff of the University of Wisconsin in their jointly authored white paper, “Purpose in Life and Use of Preventative Health Care Services.” They make clear that, “Purpose in life has been linked with better health (mental and physical).”

Can there be a better case for using technology as a strident and utilitarian tool to augment a senior’s lifestyle with engagement via technology that minimizes the impact of loneliness and isolation? I chose the word “augment” because we understand that human-to-human engagement is the optimum solution, but that is not always possible due to distance. Technology provides the next-best level of engagement.

A lot of attention and investment is being given to health assessment technologies—the clinical aspects of blood pressure, heart rates, breathing, aches and pains, post-surgical healing and care, etc.—and rightly so. Here again, however, we need to broaden our adoption of technology to deal with the social dimension of health assessment. More pointedly, we need a mechanism beyond erratic e-mails and phone calls to monitor how our senior family members are doing each day. Technology is now available that provides for a simple, one-touch, “I’m OK” button on a tablet that lets every caregiving stakeholder know that things are fine and that also reports what direction a senior’s health is headed. Self-managed health care often needs the proactive contributions of a professional’s intervention. Assessments, while beneficial, only become meaningful when someone—a caregiver or the senior—can take action that avoids a worsening condition or a more critical trauma. Technology can be that conduit.

My experience with social engagement platforms—those that enable seniors to become part of an active learning and social community—has proven to be a rewarding endeavor. I see senior lives transformed with a passion for “joining that next session.” I often hear from seniors, “One click, and I am with my friends, engaged and participating!”

It is important to recognize that we are rapidly moving into an age where traditional health care services and care payment models are being restructured to keep patients out of hospitals, reduce readmissions and lessen the number of visits to ERs. This new model can be successful only when a bridge to the patient and engagement/assessment has been facilitated by the adoption of advanced technology—jointly by the caregiver and recipient. To state it another way, traditional brick-and-mortar care facilities will not be able to meet the demand the senior population will place on them. We also need to understand that these facilities have an ever-lessening incentive to serve the elderly ill in the numbers seniors are only now beginning to represent. The new hospital room, nursing facility and retirement residence are all being defined by the desire of seniors—and by law—as the home. It will be technology that creates the virtual health care services that facilitate this future.

The good news is that technology is delivering the solution. Advances in connectivity, video telemedicine, care plan simulators, remote patient monitoring, recovery therapies and even advances in therapies for the cognitively impaired are readily at hand. Technologies that take into account vision issues and hearing loss are being woven into these solutions. Even research work with humanoid health care companion robotics harkens as a new era for companionship, engagement and assessment.

It is my belief that we are now in that new era where we need to embrace technology as caregivers and have the confidence that seniors can and will use it. They know—and their families know—that their lives depend on it.