How Seniors Got Lost In The Digital Health Revolution

Bertalan Meskó, MD, PhD

COVID-19 forced seniors to start looking for technology-based solutions more than ever before. According to reports, they are more connected to the Internet than ever before, as loneliness and isolation forced them to use their devices extensively. A survey in the U.S. found that the overall use of telemedicine services among seniors increased by 300% during the pandemic. 

Acquiring digital skills became a must, but, due to the lockdowns and worrying about their health, most of them have lost their support network in tech – children, grandchildren and other more computer literate family members. Learning how to use these tools, however, contributes to the everyday lives and wellbeing of seniors – and this is a gap technology companies in healthcare must overcome.

Being left out

Until the past decade, the older generations have been a bit ignored by technological developments as these are all aimed at the young and technology-savvy. Luckily, this trend is changing for the better – not least due to the fact that the number of older persons is projected to double to 1.5 billion in 2050. Take a look at the most obvious technology at hand we all use: a smartphone.

It took the industry quite a long time to get there, but today there are multiple smartphones designed specifically for the needs of seniors. These have big screens, larger, easy-to-read fonts and simpler user panels. The phones aren’t necessarily too smart – but at least they exist. Experts say the delay was due to insufficient understanding of the technology needs of the elderly, a lack of innovation and reluctant investors. Similar problems persist in healthcare technologies.

The terms

The term “senior” usually refers to people who are retired and are over 65 years old. However, there are multiple subcategories, as there are young-old (65-75 years), middle-old (75-85 years) and the oldest-old seniors (86+ years). They can also be defined as “elderly” (around the globe) or “retired” – but in the U.K. they are referred to as OAPs, which stands for Old Age Pensioner.

From the iPhone to wearables – and the difficulties that lie in the details

People who are now in their 70s were around fifty years old when the first iPhone came out; so let’s not forget that they are already pretty accustomed to using smart devices. The extremely rapid digital growth that characterizes our everyday lives can, however, make even a more experienced person feel like this train has already left the building. And many of the 60+ers don’t fall in the tech-savvy category either. 

As 61 years old U.K-resident Mrs. Gaynor Horton explained us in her email to The Medical Futurist: “it is not just the affordability of the tech or lack of a somebody to show me how to use it, but a much larger stumbling block that seems to be occurring in every department or new invention possible, some of us have no 'somebody' to be the relative or caregiver to even monitor us. This is a growing problem hitting more and more of the population as we baby boomers age. What can the tech giants do to make this more inclusive to us as well where there is no caregiver?

Indeed, although there are luckily more and more inventions that are aimed at elderly people, these solutions are either too expensive or require someone to explain how they actually operate – or both. At the Consumer Electronics Shows (CES) in the past few years, there were a handful of tools introduced particularly aimed at older people. From a gamified rehab tool to a robot caretaker, from a fall detector to an AI-based smart remote caregiver solution. However, these devices are more in the high-end category, and middle-class seniors struggle to pay so much for a device. 

Held during COVID and online, CES 2021 brought a refreshing selection on elderly tech products. The issues COVID-19 has highlighted over the past months put a harsher spotlight on how society takes care of their ageing members. Therefore innovations that are somewhat more affordable and are more within reach, like simpler telemedicine, fitness/wellness or monitoring platforms and solutions. 

Aimed at seniors: robots and care devices

Industry participants like the AARP in the U.S., focusing on issues affecting those over the age of fifty, rushed to support healthcare providers with recommendations and advice on how to approach 50+ers with telecare or, for example, on which smartwatch to buy.

What if you have the perfect solution at hand – but your hand can’t control the device?

But then there are other issues. “I had shingles that affected my left eye badly back in May. But because my hands cannot cope with a smart phone, I couldn't even let the Doctors see how I was affected” – highlights Mrs Gaynor. “I had to attend physically with the aid of an agency carer, an emergency appointment at the Acute Eye Clinic some miles away, for assessing my eye and treatment. I then was supposed to have checkups every 3 days; but as I neither had anybody to take me, nor had any smart tech, again this had to be agreed and done on self-assessment by telephone alone with the consultant.

...or if you simply don’t see the screen?

One of the commenters of this article brought up another, otherwise easy to solve issue: 

“I am classed as an 85 year old computer expert. Built my first computer in the 70's. My issue is in the spreading use of lighter and lighter shades of gray for text. Not to mention using gray on light blue backgrounds. Is it really necessary to exclude people over 30 from accessing their websites?”

Similar issues are not uncommon, and governments or often NGOs try to provide support – yet this is often not enough. 

Here are the 3 main barriers keeping seniors out of the healthcare revolution:

1 Few technological innovations are aimed particularly at seniors

» and if they do, it’s often prejudiced

2 Affordability

–» If tech is aimed at them, it’s often not affordable 

3 Lack of support in implementing tech

–» and if it’s for them and affordable, they don’t get support in actually using these

Technology aimed at seniors

Tech companies over the past several years started to see the advantages of designing devices particularly aimed at seniors; but it’s still only a fraction of the tools aimed at young people. As they have embraced technology solutions much faster since COVID-19, they are also using these devices more regularly and companies aim more and more products at them. However, this coin has two sides: when companies try to develop devices for seniors, they often fall for prejudices about the people in those age groups – which can be totally off, and in some cases straightforward insulting. Companies are assuming what people at a certain age should or should not be able to do, but scientifically, those data just don’t exist. The most useful devices aren’t always gadgets that presume their ability. Instead, it’s often the technology that helps the elderly easily stay connected with loved ones.

Affordability

If the technology is good for seniors, it is often not affordable for them. Smartphones, smartwatches, wearables, assistive technology solutions and other health tools available in the market often come with a very high price tag. The price rules out a big part of the society – seniors included. And as we know from research, for elderly people choosing a device or a platform is also a value-based decision. They take better choices when it comes to gadgets. 

Lack of support implementing technology/setting up devices 

From the provider side, processes and algorithms probably seem obvious and they are as straightforward as they get. But would a programmer be able to talk about this to a senior citizen? Think of it as an IKEA shelf: its assembly instructions are supposed to be clear and foolproof; yet how many times did we all stand above it feeling helpless? Now imagine the same feeling but with much more complex issues; like setting up a new user account for a new device then linking it with your email and its wearable. 

What is certain is that 60+ers are definitely on the market, using these devices and that technology companies try to reach them. To be able to find each other they must start speaking the same language. As the number of seniors grows and they are in need of more care, the market gap is expanding. Therefore the providers and developers are also interested in developing digital health technologies specifically designed for them. We’ll see about that.

Dr. Bertalan Mesko, PhD is The Medical Futurist and Director of The Medical Futurist Institute analyzing how science fiction technologies can become reality in medicine and healthcare. As a geek physician with a PhD in genomics, he is a keynote speaker and an Amazon Top 100 author.

 

Latest Posts

-->