Technology is changing how we grow old and die
This is a story about how life could end for many of us: at home surrounded by high-tech sensors, voice assistants and automated pill dispensers. And there’s a “companion” robot to ward off loneliness.
Or it’s a story about being able to age in your own house instead of an assisted-living center, and maintaining your independence and video chatting with your grandkids.
Technology to help monitor, comfort and care for the elderly is becoming increasingly mainstream. But we’re only just starting to consider how it will change the way we age.
At CES this month, the annual technology show, companies — from small startups to Samsung — were pushing senior care as the next big thing.
Who will take care of us?
The population of older adults is growing, because of aging baby boomers and longer life expectancies. The number of people over age 65 in the United States grew by 37.2 million from 2006 to 2016, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
At the same time, the ratio of younger to older family members is declining, creating a shortage of family caretakers down the line. This is coupled with an increasing shortage of professional home health workers. With the right technology, older people could stay in their own homes longer, and unpaid family caretakers could keep their jobs or spend less money on hired health aids.
Some tech devices are still years away from hitting shelves. For example, Samsung’s newly announced mobile Bot Care robot watches you sleep and takes vital signs. Short and gleaming white with a touchscreen for a face, the prototype could act as a part-time health aide, according to Samsung. In addition to taking blood pressure and heart rate readings, the robot could remind someone to take their medicine and guide them through exercises.
Preventing falls and calling Ubers
But some devices are already being used in the real world to help the elderly, including voice assistants and sensors that track movement. Smart home products can be set up to send text notifications when someone leaves a stove on or wanders out of the house, and older people who can’t drive can ask Alexa to order an Uber ride.
The fastest growing category of tech for seniors is the monitoring of an age-old problem: falls. One out of every four people over the age of 65 fall every year, according to the CDC. Instead of reaching for a panic button or a phone, new fall-detection devices can automatically detect a spill and send alerts to approved family members of emergency services.
Some products are wearables, such as Abeye — a pair of black-frame eyeglasses for seniors that include a sensor for falls and an alert button. Others are standalone devices that combine motion sensors and cameras, including the $299 Aladin lamp, a tall wall-mounted light that’s planted on the floor in a location where falls might happen.
Meanwhile, Kepler Vision Technologies is working on video monitoring software to detect if a subject is drinking enough, going to the bathroom more than usual, or even a bad mood.
One of the hardest problems: being alone
But new monitoring technology can go beyond tracking physical developments — it can also ward off loneliness.
Social isolation can increase the risk of dying earlier, research suggests. To help, “companion” robots, including Paro — a plush Japanese robot that looks like a seal and mimics the movements of a living creature– claim to offer comfort and company. The more whimsical Lovot robot (around $3,000) rolls around looking for hugs, and Aibo from Samsung ($2,899) is a like a dog without the mess.
Another robot, Pria by Black and Decker, uses voice commands to manage medication alerts and dispense pills. It also doubles as a video chat device to connect users with family members and caregivers via a built-in screen and camera. Available later this year, it will cost around $500. Meanwhile, the EllieQ ($1,499) combines a tablet and simple robot, and can send updates to family members, including reminders to check in. It will launch this summer.
“We’re automating guilt,” said Dor Skuler, CEO Intuition Robotics, which makes the EllieQ.
Easing the burden on caretakers
Manufacturers say these technologies aren’t supposed to replace in-person time with others but automate some of the more stressful interactions. SensorsCall’s $99 CareAlert is a small sensor-packed device that can be plugged into outlets around a home to help decrease the daily worrying for caretakers.
“Seniors [don’t] like cameras in their house. They don’t answer their phones. Most of their kids are just freaking out,” said Anand Krishnan, co-founder of SensorsCall.
Automating parts of senior care could be especially helpful for women. That’s because elderly care falls disproportionately on women (wives, daughters and sisters). The majority of nonprofessional elder-care providers are women too, according to a survey from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Technology that can make caretaking a part-time job — instead of full time — could help more women remain in the workforce, or delegate some care-taking to other family members.
Of course, sensors, robots and security cameras can only do so much. They’re not poised to replace the human element of elder care anytime soon.
“You’re not going to have a robot taking you to the bathroom. You’re not going to have a robot chatting to you during the day,” said Paul Osterman, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management who studies elder care. “You’ll have assistive devices that make for better care but don’t replace workers.”