You've likely heard of the Internet of Things (IoT), but if you don't actually know what it is, you're not alone. In fact, even purveyors of the Internet of Things at times aren't sure how to actually define this growing concept and collection of ... things. In a nutshell, the Internet of Things is a term used to describe the ever-growing network of connected devices, or, if you will, "smart gadgets." With 45 million people (and growing) in the U.S. in their senior years, and more and more seniors opting to age in place, the Internet of Things holds much promise. We contend that seniors should embrace the Internet of Things. You may just be surprised how much better and easier life can be when you do.
Today's seniors are tech-savvy
The days of grandma or grandpa not having the first clue how to use a computer or cell phone are fast diminishing. Today's seniors are used to technology, and it's not uncommon for older adults to use email and the Internet regularly. Some, in fact, use it every day. According to Pew Internet, 6 out of 10 seniors now go online, and nearly 50% of all seniors have high-speed broadband Internet access in their homes. And, older Internet users cite the benefits of having information from the Internet in their lives: 79% of senior Internet users agree that people without the Internet are at a disadvantage because of the information they miss, and 94% agree that "the Internet makes it much easier to find information today than in the past."
But, seniors are not just embracing the Internet and email. A PewResearch study showed that 2012 marked the first time that half of Americans 65 and older were online, and at that time 7 in 10 seniors owned a cell phone and one-third of seniors were using social networking sites such as Facebook. Laurie Orlov, author of an AARP study and principal analyst of Aging in Place Technology Watch, a marketing research firm in Florida, told the Denver Post that seniors are adopting technology out of necessity and "there are fewer and fewer good excuses for avoiding it if you can afford it." Tealy Baumgartner, a tech-savvy grandma in her 90s, received an iPad from her grandson and was hesitant to accept the gift until she "learned that you can't mess it up" and uses it to read her hometown newspaper, search for recipes and knitting patterns, and send emails and photos to family members.
Additionally, a study on seniors and the Internet conducted by professors of marketing at the University of California Irvine, Temple University, and California State University Long Beach determined that seniors are adopting technology more than ever, but they face "unique barriers to usage" because they previously had not used them in work situations and commonly have physical limitations that make using computer and the Internet more difficult. However, when seniors learn how to use the technology or other devices such as tablets with touchscreens and built-in assistive technology, they are enthusiastic and "express strong openness to learning." The seniors in the study most frequently noted cultural currency as the reason for wanting to adopt technology.
Several programs are being offered across the country to help seniors learn how to use technology, including those at senior centers, in conjunction with programs matching teens with seniors, and others. In New York City, seniors can take advantage of free tech training classes being offered by Older Adults Technology Services (OATS). With support from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the City of New York, 23 new public computer centers have been built in neighborhoods throughout the city. Each new facility contains 300 computers, available for seniors to use free of charge. In Kansas City, Arts Tech, a youth organization working with underserved urban teens to help them develop marketable artistic and technical skills, is training teens to teach seniors about using computers and the Internet. The Kansas City Digital Inclusion Fund, money made available to nonprofits seeking to close the digital divide, is funding the project to match teens and seniors for technology lessons. And, in Colombia, Md., teens from the Colombia Association's Youth and Teen Center the the Barn are working with seniors from the 50+ Center at the East Colombia Branch of the Howard County Library System to teach them new technology. The program was created after the Senior Center received a donation of several iPads.
Once seniors know how to use the technology, it becomes part of their everyday lives. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, among older adults who use the Internet, 71% go online every day or nearly every day, and an additional 11% go online between 3 and 5 times a week. And, seniors are increasingly purchasing tablets or e-book readers: 27% of seniors own a tablet, an e-book reader, or both, while only 18% own a smartphone. If seniors are tackling these devices, they surely can handle IoT products, which typically involve automatic notifications and require little, if any, manual control.
New Technologies Suited to Seniors
According to a report in Government Health IT, new technologies that address the needs and problems of seniors will be essential. By 2050, the number of Americans 65 and older is set to double, to more than 80 million, and the number of heads of household aged 70 or older is expected to increase by 42%, to 28 million, by 2025, according to research by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Moreover, a survey by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that almost 90% of Americans, including those older than 70, want to age in place for at least the next 5 to 10 years of their lives.
As the American population ages, and as the digital health field expands, technologies addressing the unique challenges of aging in place will become more of a reality. Great strides already have been made to improve aging, with the emergence of companies like BrainAid, True Link and Lively. Seniors who want to age in place need to be as independent as possible, and BrainAid produces PEAT, an Android app that provides cognitive aids for independent living. Seniors with Alzheimer's, dementia, or memory loss receive help with tasks through cueing and scheduling assistance. Finances can be a hindrance to aging in place, so True Link provides financial safety for seniors; it features on and off switches for caregivers or children to help aging parents manage their money by blocking purchases, setting spending limits, sending alerts about suspect charges, and more. Concerns over loved ones aging in place also can hinder the process, and Lively helps caregivers and children keep tabs on elderly family members. Lively's activity sensors monitor movements in the home and their Safety Watch gives medication reminders, keeps track of steps, and includes an emergency button. These are just a few of the many companies that are developing technologies to make aging in place a reality for seniors.
IoT and "Smart Aging"
One of the most important benefits of seniors choosing to embrace the Internet of Things is that it has the power to transform their lives. W. David Stephenson, a leading IoT strategist, theorist, and writer, focuses on "smart aging" and encourages seniors to use "a combination of wearable devices and smart home devices to allow seniors to age in place with dignity, improved health, and lower expenses." In an April 2014 blog post, Stephenson explains the ways in which the IoT can benefit seniors, from helping them to become partners in their health care through self-monitoring to aiding them while they live alone, miles away from family.
Stephenson suggests that seniors take advantage of IoT products such as bedroom slippers with sensors to detect variations in a senior's gait and alert caregivers by an app. There also are necklaces that detect the onset of congestive heart failure. Stephenson asserts that these IoT products will take some pressure off of elderly patients who need to recall their symptoms at doctor's appointments and actually will give more information to doctors because they can measure what is happening with the patient: "the patient will generate a constant stream of data, and, over time, we will evolve efficient ways of reporting the spikes in readings to the doctor in a way that might actually trigger preventive care to avoid an incident, or at least provide an objective means of judging its severity to improve the quality of care."
IoT Empowers Seniors to Age In Place
Sometimes, seniors just need to get past the fear of the newness and embrace the technology that can enhance their lives and keep them connected to their loved ones and hobbies while they age in place. Once they do, they realize all of the potential uses and benefits of using smart gadgets. Many are actually quite simple to use after initial set-up and provide useful capabilities. The most common IoT products that help seniors to age in place include...
- Controlling lighting, security systems, and appliances with a mobile device
- Providing continuous monitoring and sensors to alert loved ones or health providers of accidents
- Issuing medication reminders
- Offering reminders to turn off the stove, or even automatic shut-off functionality
- Wearable health sensors for remote healthcare services
- stephenson blogs on Internet of Things, data, et al.
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- Trends in Aging: Wearable Tech and Sensors for Seniors