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It doesn’t take a radical disruptor to know that the senior smart tech market is ripe with opportunity. Silicon Valley’s innovator class isn’t generally known for catering to the silver-haired crowd, but as the baby boomer population starts to experience the aggravations of aging, the benefits that smart technology can provide — making taxing tasks easier, for example, or fostering connections without having to leave a couch — are becoming increasingly desirable.
United States census data indicates that, for the first time in the country’s history, by 2035, older people could outnumber children. Experts worry that prohibitively expensive and time-consuming caretaker responsibilities could mean our elders live their final years without the efficient and compassionate care they need.
Creating the right products for this era comes with several challenges for tech. For one, many smart tech companies aren’t used to asking seniors for input on their designs, and wind up with a product better suited to their younger, tech-savvy caretakers than one simplified for the people who would actually use it. And even when older folks are consulted, designers may end up with all kinds of conflicting ideas. The population has so many diverse backgrounds, needs, income levels, and levels of tech literacy, which can make it seem impossible to make one senior tech product to rule them all. After all, sometimes the only thing that old people have in common is their age.
Still, new products enter the market every day. Many are aimed at the people who may not need full-time care, but could use a helping hand for their daily tasks. Most are designed to help older people live independently, but can also be seamlessly integrated into a friend or family member’s home, even if the older visitor is just staying for a week or two. Take the Reminder Rosie, a smart clock with a senior-friendly interface that gives gentle and personalized reminders about easily forgettable tasks such as taking medicine or sending a birthday card. Other products, like HoneyCo, still rely on in-home caretakers to remind patients about those tasks, but monitor each home visit and send updates to concerned family members, debriefing them on the caregiver’s performance.
Falls are another big concern, and for good reason. They are the leading cause of deadly injury among older adults according to the National Council on Aging. There’s a smart product for that: the E-vone. It’s a smart shoe that immediately alerts a caretaker or rescue team with precise geographical information when someone has fallen. Zanthion makes a line of smart clothing that offers protection against a tumble and also notifies authorities in case of a fall. A smart lamp called the Aladin uses sensors to detect movement nearby. It will turn on automatically to prevent seniors from tripping in the dark. Those same sensors can sense if someone has taken a spill and can alert the right people in order to send help. In addition, it can gather sleep quality data by monitoring whether a person begins waking up more frequently than usual, for instance, in an effort to detect early warning signs of cognitive conditions.
Other products attempt to give those advancing in age more than just friendly reminders or medical alerts: They also want to be a companion. A lack of mobility and access, as well as a dwindling set of living or able friends and family can make it difficult for seniors to connect with humans — a symptom of aging that can have devastating physical and mental effects. Enter the Ohmni: a thin mobile robot with a video screen for a ‘head,’ that makes it easier for the elderly to contact loved ones. With an interface far easier to use than a computer hooked up to Skype, seniors can call their loved ones with one click. Those relatives can also dial up from the other end to get a visual confirmation of their seniors’ safety.
Other technology takes it a step further. Japanese nursing homes have been among the first to adopt the Telenoid, a robot purposefully designed to be of indiscriminate age, sex, or expression. Its aim is to provide steady camaraderie to those suffering from conditions like dementia. Care.coach is another product offering companionship. Via a tablet with a puppy avatar, healthcare workers on the other side of the avatar provide users with psychosocial support and health coaching.
Using smart home technology to totally replace human companionship can sound like the beginning of a bleak dystopian future, but the best smart home technology for aging citizens isn’t designed to take the place of humans. Instead, it acts as a human complement. Because at best, the dedicated and affordable caretaker may be busy, but at worst, they don’t exist at all.
Rachelle Dragani is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in publications including TIME Magazine, Jezebel, Popular Mechanics, Esquire, Futurism, and more.