Jan 08 2021

What’s Next for Senior Tech? 5 Insights from the Thrive Center

The nonprofit’s executive director speaks about the tools transforming the care and well-being of older adults in 2021 — and beyond.

Technology adoption among older adults is growing, and there are no signs of slowing down: Those age 50 and older are using smartphones, wearables, voice-powered home assistants and other smart home technologies with almost the same vigor as younger people, according to a recent AARP report.

Three-quarters of this surveyed demographic indicate a desire to age in place. Helping them do so is a host of services and devices designed to support a healthier, safer and more independent lifestyle.

Tools that might once have seemed futuristic or out of reach are increasingly becoming a way of life, says Sheri Rose, executive director of the Thrive Center.

Rose and her team would know: The Louisville, Ky.-based nonprofit showcases cutting-edge technology and provides education aimed at improving the quality of life and care for the elderly.

Established tech companies and startups look to the Thrive Center to show their wares, receive feedback from seniors and interact with healthcare providers in search of innovative solutions. These past exchanges now provide new value during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rose spoke to HealthTech about some of the home technologies and care delivery models poised play a greater role in seniors’ lives this year and beyond. 

1. Smart Technologies for Seniors Support Independent Living

From appliances such as induction cooktops for those with vision issues to refrigerators that let users see inside without opening the door (and set digital alerts for food expiration dates and order groceries for delivery), smart home devices offer flexibility and freedom to older adults.

“These types of technologies can help enable a person to live at home,” Rose says.

On a simpler and more cost-effective level, voice assistants can offer a helping hand for a variety of tasks. A user might ask a smart speaker — paired with other devices throughout the house — to adjust the thermostat, telephone a family member or see who’s outside via a front-door camera.

Other tools may use light detection and ranging (lidar) technology to recognize motion in the home via laser scanning if the resident doesn’t have a wearable or doesn’t want to wear one, which is common for those with dementia. Likewise, sensors that use artificial intelligence can monitor changes in a person’s gait and stride; changes detected to movement patterns can alert caregivers about the likelihood of a fall.

2. Wearables Collect Vital Health Data from Older Adults

Beyond the typical smartwatches and consumer wearables such as Apple Watch and Fitbit, among others, a growing number of personal medical devices help older adults collect vital signs, capture and transmit that data and analyze it via dashboards for clinical review.

These include Wi-Fi-enabled pulse oximeters and blood pressure monitors that provide medically accurate measurements and immediate feedback.

MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: How COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation in healthcare. 

Some smart hearing aids now feature Bluetooth technology and offer remote hearing-test capabilities; complementary apps can provide sound therapy designed to maintain and strengthen a user’s hearing.

Wearables, Rose says, have gained prominence since the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services expanded reimbursement for remote patient monitoring in 2019. 

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, meanwhile, tools that help reduce readmissions hold even more value. “Chronic heart failure and other comorbidities can be monitored remotely and help seniors avoid exposure to the virus, keeping them safe and healthy at home,” Rose says.

Some tools can even detect if something is amiss.

“Smart tablets designed for seniors have integrated data collected from wearables.  While you’re playing solitaire on your tablet, you get an alert that you need to take a walk or take your heart medication,” Rose says, also noting that certain wearables use geofencing and GPS technologies with two-way communication to alert caregivers if a person with dementia wanders away. 

3. Telehealth and Seniors: A Critical Pairing for Wellness

Although telehealth is not a new technology, the pandemic has promoted rapid adoption of virtual visits and video consultations — functions that are critical to older adults with limited mobility and who are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 in public healthcare settings. 

With so many videoconferencing options out there, each with its own user interface, clinicians and providers must consider easy-to-use platforms that allow older adults to log in securely and without complications.

Improvements in tablet and camera capabilities have made virtual visits more meaningful, Rose says, thanks to resolution levels high enough that a dermatologist could accurately assess a wound, for example.

Simplicity and visual quality also further the notion that virtual care is as effective and realistic as an in-person visit, ensuring older adults will use it when needed.

4. VR and Digital Platforms Engage Patients During Isolation

The pandemic has severely curtailed in-person social engagement, a critical component of senior care and maintaining strong mental and physical health.

Advances in virtual reality are bringing new opportunities to connect and explore without leaving a user’s room — or staying socially distant from other users.

Rose highlighted a VR networking platform called Rendever that allows users to strap on a headset and participate in virtual travel activities, attend a concert or play games.

“It’s very socially engaging,” Rose says. “It’s networked VR; you could go ‘scuba diving’ and talk about the experience together.”

At the Thrive Center, seniors’ adoption of VR technology has been swift and overwhelmingly positive.

“We see older adults visit Thrive and put on a VR headset, and they get so enthralled with sitting on the beach and meditating,” Rose says, adding that one developer has taken the idea a step further, with stationary bikes that use Google Street View to immerse users in an environment of their choosing. 

“We do so much with virtual reality because we know the impact it can have on reducing pain, loneliness and stress levels.”

Other efforts, though simpler, are vital for health and well-being. When the Thrive Center temporarily shut its doors due to COVID-19 safety measures, it migrated popular programs onto a virtual platform via a partnership with AARP. Participants can interact live with a chair yoga instructor for exercise programs and a chef for monthly cooking classes. 

MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: Healthcare tech trends to watch in 2021.

5. 5G Expands to Boost Connectivity Near and Far

Much of this technology requires robust infrastructure, so it’s important to ensure the Wi-Fi coverage at senior care centers and residences reaches all corners of the property — and that users of all ages are trained in proper cybersecurity practices before using connected devices.

The rollout of 5G technology — the fifth generation of cellular service with speeds up to 100 times faster than current coverage — has the potential to transform healthcare delivery by boosting speed and capacity while reducing latency.

“5G is really going to boost a lot of download and upload capacity. When deployed, I think it will make a huge difference,” Rose says.

Still, coverage gaps in some rural communities and even underserved urban communities must be addressed, she says:  “We have to do a better job of building out a broadband network. Many of our older adults in rural areas need access to hospitals and specialists miles away from where they live. We have to close the gap on healthcare delivery.”

Nastasic/Getty Images