“We bought webcams for the kids and then we showed them how to get onto Skype!” This was one couple’s triumphant moment from a course on information and communication technologies for adults aged 65 and older. Skype was definitely a favorite for everyone in the class, particularly those with quickly growing grandkids spread across the country. Facebook and email were also popular, but so were things like how to find and evaluate online health-related information, and Picasa, a free software program for organizing and manipulating photos.
According to the Pew Research Center, over half of adults aged 65 and older use the Internet and that number is continuing to grow. The majority of older Internet users go online every day and they are increasingly mobile, particularly with tablets and e-readers.
It’s true that older adults can face numerous barriers to using technology. Most current older adults left the workforce before personal computers, the Internet, and cell phones became ubiquitous. And work is where most of us learn new technological skills. Older adults may not see a benefit to learning new technology; feel that it is too difficult to learn, too expensive, or even dangerous; and have little confidence in their technological abilities. Changes in eyesight, motor skills, memory and cognition, and other physical problems (e.g., hand tremors from Parkinson’s or other illnesses) can make interacting with technology difficult. The technology itself can contribute to these challenges with complex screens, small print, and standard keyboards.
Some of these barriers are probably temporary as the baby boomers age and technology developers address usability issues for this growing market. Providing access to appropriate training and support issues can also increase the likelihood that older adults will adopt new technologies. The couple described above took part in a computer training program especially adapted for older adults. That meant only students over 65, plenty of hands on practice time and in-class support, clearly written step-by-step instructions , a slow and careful pace to the class, and a curriculum targeted toward technologies (such as Skype) that they saw as clearly beneficial and worth the effort. Increasingly, research has found that, under the right circumstances, older adults are capable of and interested in learning how to use a variety of technologies.
This growing comfort with technology opens doors for other tools that can help older adults stay connected and independent. In addition to the information and communication technologies described above, there are a growing number of technologies related to health and wellness, the home environment, and supports for caregiving.
In terms of health and wellness, increasingly sophisticated Remote Patient Monitoring tools track blood pressure, weight, glucose levels, sleep patterns, and medication use. These devices collect information from the patient at home. They are easy to use. They can be programmed with reminders about upcoming appointments or information on the specific condition, symptoms, or behavior changes. Changes in health status or early warning signs of problems are automatically sent to providers and caregivers who can then intervene early and because data can be transmitted to a variety of providers at once it can help coordinate care which is particularly important for older adults with multiple chronic conditions.
A variety of technologies can help individuals manage their medications. At their simplest these may include applications that provide instructions and information about potential drug interactions and side effects, as well as devices or applications that remind patients when to take medications. There are also devices currently available that will sort medications and dispense them by day to help prevent double dosing. Some also keep a log of the medications and when they are taken (or not) which is automatically sent to a clinician and/or caregiver. In the future, there may also be technology that can detect whether medications have actually been ingested and how well they are metabolizing, and that allow clinicians to automatically and remotely make adjustments.
Technology in the home environment is moving beyond emergency response buttons to smart homes that are wired to track a number of activities. How smart the home is can be adapted to the individual’s needs. It can include sensors to detect motion throughout the house and identify a gradual decline in overall activity. Pressure pads can set off a remote alert if an older adult falls. Sensors can be added to stoves to monitor the temperature and length of use, particularly when a stove is left on without any other activity being sensed in the kitchen. Cabinet doors and beds can be wired to track use. Beds can also be wired to monitor respiration, pulse, and movement such as unusual restlessness in bed at night that may indicate a health issue that needs to be addressed.
Finally, a variety of online caregiving platforms facilitate communication between the older adult, their informal caregivers, and professional service providers as well as providing information and caregiver support. Increasingly, patients and caregivers are looking online for health information. Web-based peer groups have also become popular for caregiver support and information exchange. They have the benefit of being caregiver and patient-centered and can be broadly focused or tailored to specific illnesses and conditions. Other platforms focus more on care coordination among informal caregivers, patients, and health care providers.
Whether for fun, socializing, or health, technology can help older adults stay connected and independent. For more information, two good resources include the Center for Technology and Aging (www.techandaging.org) and the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project (http://www.pewinternet.org/).