The Benefits of Wearable Technology for Seniors and How They Could Improve (by Casey Glatfelter)

In a day and age where technology prevails, finding uses for it can be seemingly endless.  While this could be great, one issue is that most of the latest and greatest devices are typically designed and marketed with a young population in mind.  The potential benefits for an older population often get overlooked because of assumptions made about the usability or functionality of the devices.  In all reality, those assumptions may be correct to an extent, but with a bit of tweaking, wearable technology could be an incredible asset to aging adults.

A recent trend in technology is wearable activity trackers.  Devices like Fitbit, Garmin, and Jawbone are typically styled as an adjustable wristband and come in multiple designs and colors.  These devices are intended to encourage people to be more physically active by performing a number of tasks such as detecting movement and counting steps like a pedometer, monitoring heart rates, and tracking sleep cycles.  They can also note the number of calories burned per day and the distance that has been traveled.  Many devices are waterproof and some advanced models can also act as a watch, give you alerts from your phone or set silent alarms.  When connected with an app either on the computer or phone, it is also possible to set goals that will then sync with the activity tracker to help track when they are achieved.

While fitness trackers have been all the rage over the past few years to encourage, and monitor health and fitness, companies have been expanding upon the idea to suit additional desires.  Apple in particular began marketing a smartwatch called the Apple Watch which would act as a companion to their smartphone.  Like the fitness trackers, it can be worn on the wrist like a watch, and it does offer some of the same features as its predecessor, but it is more useful for its other abilities.  The Apple Watch can alert the user to phone calls, texts and emails and allow them to answer them directly from the device.  It can receive any other notifications of the user’s choice and add new appointments to the calendar.  It can also control whatever music is being played on the phone, or even hold music to play outside of it.  Furthermore, the capabilities of Siri are accessible from the watch.

While both of these types of devices could be useful for older adults, fitness trackers lack many features that could be useful to the aging community, while the smartwatch has an abundance of unnecessary capabilities that may prove overwhelming and gratuitous.  The health features of the activity trackers may be beneficial as a whole, but they also aren’t tailored towards the specific needs of older adults.  While many adults may be embarrassed to wear a device such as LifeAlert, or think that they are not old enough to need it, having the capabilities on a wearable device that can alert others of a fall may prove to be an invaluable feature to adults who are living alone.  Studies have found that there are over 2.5 million adults over age 65 who are treated each year from an injury sustained in a fall (Czaja, 2016). In this meta-analysis by Czaja (2016), many forms of technological devices were analyzed to see their long-term care capabilities in supporting older adults’ independence.  The article noted that while two thirds of older adults have to rely on others for help to meet their care needs, there are fewer people available to them than there once was.  While technology can’t fully replace the assistance given by another person, it can help fill some of the gaps that are left.  Many of the available technologies can help provide reassurance to both the independent adult and their family.    With regard to wearable items, the Czaja (2016) study noted a high rate of adherence for sustained use, with 77% of participants continuing to wear the device over a six-month period.  Although it did assist with the ability to live alone, there were also many potential needs of older adults that were not taken into account with these devices, or not implemented at all.  Some of the additional options that were researched by Czaja (2016) included medical alert systems and “smart-home” technology that have features that could potentially be integrated into wearable devices.

Smartwatches may cover some of the bases that fitness trackers alone would not.  While trackers could help with many aspects of health, it can go even further with smartwatches ability to connect to phone applications.  The ability to set reminders for taking medications could prove to be an invaluable asset to older adults. A study by El-Gayar, Timsina, Nawar, & Eid (2013) showed how mobile integration helped in the management of diabetes.  In this study, 50 apps available from the Apple App Store were reviewed with regard to their helpfulness in self-management tasks for diabetic treatment.  The apps were found to be overall preferred to computer based system.  They assisted in regimen adherence, which improved keeping to healthy diet, being more physically active, and testing blood glucose levels on a more regular basis.  Many of the applications lacked features, such as automatically uploading the data, that would increase the ease of use, particularly for those who were less familiar with technology as a whole.  This unfamiliarity proved to be an obstacle for some participants who struggled with a phone overall, much less the application they needed to use (El-Gayar, Timsina, Nawar, & Eid, 2013).  So, while smartwatches may offer more potential benefits, they also come with the drawback of being less user-friendly and needing more overall technological knowledge to use them.

Wearable technology is still a new trend, but there is clearly a lot that can be looked into to make it more appealing to people in older generations.  Perceived usability is one important consideration that should be taken into account when looking at what should or should not be included in the design.  Overly complicated devices, even if they have helpful features, are less likely to be used by the greater adult population.  This would particularly cause issues for those who may have cognitive declines.  User interface is another factor that needs to be taken in account when designing a product for older adults.  Screens need to be made larger for readability and accessibility.  GPS and tracking support could be useful for both the user and their family to ease their minds in independent living situations, or if the user has a cognitive impairment.  Motion and activity trackers may help encourage older adults to stay active, which can be a strong protective factor in healthy aging.  Notifications could be extremely beneficial on both a daily level for reminders such as when to take medications, and long term for remembering events and birthdays.  If some form of an emergency button is included, it needs to be easy enough to access in the case of a fall, but not so easy that it could be pressed accidentally when performing other tasks.  With this, including some form of automatic notification may be useful in addition to or potentially instead of a button to push.  Some considerations may be that if the device detects a fall, it could ask the user if he or she would like to call a specific caretaker or emergency services and if there is no response, do so anyway.  Battery life and the ability to recharge devices wirelessly should also be taken into consideration, especially in devices that may be used to track sleep cycles, as no one wants to be plugged in to something while they are trying to sleep.  Overall, there are many useful features to all forms of wearable technology to encourage independent living in older adults, but there are also many improvements that can be made to accommodate their specific needs.   These advances would not replace the usefulness of a caretaker, but they could assist or alleviate some of their necessity.

 

 

 

 

References

Czaja, S. J. (2016). Long-term care services and support systems for older adults: The role of technology. American Psychologist, 71(4), 294-301.

El-Gayar, O., Timsina, P., Nawar, N., & Eid, W. (2013). Mobile applications for diabetes self-management: Status and potential. Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology, 7(1). 247-262. doi:10.1177/193229681300700130

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