Emerging Technologies to Support an Aging Population

A growing number of technologies are being developed to support an aging population. They range from cognitive training and lifelong learning to communication and social connectivity to personal mobility and more.

In a two-round Delphi survey, experts assessed the potential of 10 emerging technologies to address older people’s care and support needs across five domains. Voice activated devices and portable diagnostics reached consensus, whereas self-driving vehicles and VR/AR/MR did not.

1. Wearables

Wearables are gadgets worn on the body, usually incorporating a microprocessor, battery and connectivity to the Internet. They come in a wide range of categories, including health and fitness monitoring devices such as wearable heart rate monitors and pedometers, smartwatches, VR headsets and other entertainment devices, and intelligent clothing with electronics embedded in fabric or jewelry.

Many older adults are familiar with and use different technologies, so they can easily learn to operate wearables. However, their cognitive age can be an obstacle to using these devices — studies show that seniors with higher cognitive age have less interest in wearing them.

Several companies are developing technology that makes it easier for seniors to use their devices. These include wearables that enable people to use voice commands, such as Alexa and Google Assistant. Other tech in development includes brain-computer interfaces that allow people to type or interact with computers by simply thinking. For example, Elon Musk’s company Neuralink is working on a device that can turn your thoughts into text or actions.

2. Smart Homes

A smart home refers to a house or apartment equipped with technical systems that automate processes and connect remotely-controllable devices, allowing greater convenience, energy efficiency and security. Its main goal is to make a person’s life easier and more enjoyable.

Modern low-cost sensors, actuators and computing technologies enable the development of fully functional smart homes. Smart home systems can monitor health signs, such as ECG, blood pressure and pulse rate and notify the relevant healthcare personnel over a secure communication channel when a potential illness is detected.

An example of a smart home system developed for elderly care is described in [158]. It uses commercial ambient and passive wireless sensors to monitor the environment and the residents’ movements, with a central control unit (gateway) and video cameras integrating over standard communication protocols such as WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee or Z-Wave. It is also capable of sending a signal to the emergency call center for alerting staff in case of an emergency.

3. Telehealth

Telehealth combines telecommunications and digital technology to support healthcare services. It includes remote patient monitoring, telenursing, telediagnosis, teleconsultation and more. Some of the more familiar telehealth offerings include live video conference calls, mobile health apps and “store and forward” electronic transmission.

A growing segment of telehealth is centered on at-home monitoring. Devices like sleep monitoring devices allow patients to stay in their own homes, while allowing physicians to see their progress. In addition, companies that provide seniors with a button they can press in case of an emergency are another form of at-home telehealth.

Having access to telehealth can help to reduce the time older adults spend waiting to be seen. It can also help them to stay in touch with their provider, which can encourage healthier choices. To be effective, telehealth technologies must be person-centered and accessible for all. A great way to ensure this is to have someone help the older adult to set up the equipment and test it prior to the appointment.

4. Robots

Robots are machines that carry out tasks with the help of a computer program. Without a set of instructions to guide their action, they’re just simple pieces of machinery.

But robots also have impressive intelligence capabilities, allowing them to do more complex tasks. They’re used in manufacturing to expedite processes, drive efficiency and promote safety. They’re also helping farmers harvest crops more quickly and accurately.

And specialized systems like iRobot’s Roomba and iPal are being developed as companion robots to support independent living. These ‘assistive robots’ can remind users to take medication, provide entertainment and even challenge their mental skills with mind-stimulating puzzles. But engineers need to ensure they’re designing the right kinds of robots for older people, says Estibaliz Arzoz-Fernandez. And involving elders at the different stages of design is essential, she adds. This could help ensure the devices meet older people’s needs and manage their expectations of them. Ideally, that would include working with medical staff.

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