Older, wiser, better connected – five ways tech will transform elderly care

Over the past few years, major advances in computing power, big data, the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) have reached almost every part of our lives, from enabling driver-assist features in cars to powering intelligent-home devices.

But while these innovations affect people of every age, they could have a particularly significant impact on older adults.

In the US alone, there are 46 million people over the age of 65 and 20 million over the age of 75. Nearly half (46 percent) of women over 75 live alone, according to the Administration on Aging. And a 2013 AARP report shows that the caregiver gap is growing – by 2030, there will be a four to one ratio of caregivers to older adults, a drop from today’s seven to one ratio. In countries like Japan and South Korea, where birth rates are in steep decline and an aging population is living longer, it’s a particularly stark issue.

Technologies like virtual reality (VR), the IoT and AI offer great promise for this age group. Here are five innovations in the healthcare industry that have the potential to transform seniors’ lives.

1. Elder-care robots

Major advances in AI mean smarter and more efficient robots. In Japan, 20 percent of the population is over the age of 65 and, according to the country’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, there will be a shortage of 380,000 nurses by 2025.

To respond to the crisis, robots are beginning to assist older adults in nursing homes, hospitals and at home. SoftBank’s Pepper, an “emotional” robot, is one such solution. It can respond to joy, sadness, anger or surprise and it’s being used in some Belgian hospitals to interact with patients.  And IBM is developing its own answer: the Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant, currently being tested in Austin, Texas at an “Aging in Place” lab.

Not all elder robots come in humanoid form, however. Robear, a nursing-care robot, gives seniors the chance to have a cuddly bear look after them. Developed by Toshiharu Mukai, a scientist at the Riken-SRK Collaboration Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research, Robear can assist with physical tasks, like helping the elderly out of a wheelchair or back into bed.

2. The Internet of Medical Things (IoMT)

A large number of seniors suffer from noncommunicable diseases, including cardiovascular conditions, respiratory issues, cancer and diabetes. These slow-progression ailments often require long-term, costly treatment. One promising solution is the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), the hodgepodge assortment of medical applications and devices that link to healthcare IT networks via the internet (think connected, smart devices that collect and exchange data in real-time). According to the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, the IoMT market, which hovered around $22.5 billion in 2016, is expected to have an annual growth rate of 26.2 percent, meaning it will skyrocket to $72.02 billion by 2021.

With the IoMT, a physician can now analyze the data of a patient’s vitals without ever leaving the office, via the cloud-connected BAM Labs Smart Bed. This has the potential to make home care far more efficient for elderly people, with doctors being able to spot potential warning signs at an early stage. And the promise of the IoMT stretches from small startups to tech giants. The UK-based company 3rings offers a smart-plug device that allows people to monitor their elderly relatives’ routines at home, sending an alert when appliances such as a television or kettle are turned on.

3. Virtual reality systems

While it might be hard to imagine a senior with a headset on playing a VR-enhanced video game, the technology will play a vital role in improving late-age care. By simulating a virtual world, technologists can develop bespoke environments that can provide major health benefits.

In 2017, a startup called Rendever won the MIT Sloan Healthcare Innovations Prize by designing a VR program for residents of an assisted-living facility. For elderly users, quality of life will be improved by being able to connect with friends and relatives in a more immersive way, while the system’s benefits include cognitive therapy and protections against dementia via tracking eye movements.

With its ability to stimulate brain activity, reactivate neuropathways and remove other distractions, VR is a popular tool for clinicians looking at new ways of treating mental disorders including Alzheimer’s disease. The Google Earth Virtual Reality Program, for example, has been used to relive seniors’ memories, an activity that activates dopamine in the brain and can act as a therapeutic treatment for Alzheimer’s sufferers.

4. Telemedicine

Telemedicine enables the provision of remote medical care via communication devices. This can provide first-rank healthcare to seniors in rural areas (slashing costs by cutting down emergency room visits, for instance, and giving senior patients faster access to drugs or a diagnosis). Chunyu Doctor, an online telemedicine platform in China, allows senior patients to communicate with doctors via text, make online appointments and access foreign physicians.

Older individuals are largely embracing telemedicine. In one recent US study, 1,100 patients obtained remote care using a tablet, Bluetooth-enabled scales and other IoT devices. Emergency hospital visits among elderly patients were reduced, 96 percent said they recommend telemedicine, and there was an overall engagement rate of 94 percent.

5. Big data and predictive analytics

Seniors run a high risk of hospital readmission when it comes to heart failure and the readmission cycle is one of the biggest problems in the way the system deals with elderly people. In response, Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas, TX is using big data via an EHR-based algorithm to predict readmission risk for individuals that have suffered heart failure. Those on the high end of the spectrum receive additional intervention care and, according to one study, using such algorithms reduced readmissions by 26 percent.

Elsewhere, US startup eCare21 gathers health information on senior citizens and uses big data technology to give caregivers and relations a 24/7 picture of an individual’s health. In time, this kind of service will be able to give ever-more sophisticated recommendations and alerts, making home care more efficient.


Hope Reese

About the author

Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a writer and editor in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Undark Magazine, Vox, and other publications.


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