Aging Well with Assistive Technology

Ellie was the kind of elder most of us hope to become: healthy, interested in life, and still managing fine on her own — in a third-floor walk-up — at 95. Her young friend Ana stopped by several times a week to help with food shopping, laundry, and tidying the small apartment. Then Ellie broke her hip.

Fortunately, she happened to be on the phone with Ana when she fell. Ana called 911 and rushed to her friend's side. Yet despite Ellie's lifelong optimism and can-do attitude, she went from independent to incapacitated in an instant, requiring a full-time caregiver once she got out of the hospital.

The reality is, over half of those 80 and older fall every year. Even if a senior miraculously escapes injury, if he is unable to get back on his feet, he's in trouble.

You can't supervise an older loved one every second of the day. But smart tech can. Today, a wealth of assistive technologies, from apps to aids, monitors to wearables, can make aging in place easier and more pleasant. A number of these quantifiables focus on enhancing personal health (hearing, vision, early diagnostics, mobility) as well as ensuring safety and well being at home.

Here are a dozen senior solutions in the vanguard of self-tracking technologies.

Keeping an electronic eye on your aging Mom & Dad

Woman Controlling Smart Security Camera Using App On Mobile Phone
Woman Controlling Smart Security Camera Using App On Mobile Phone

While some seniors may chafe at the idea of wearing a personal emergency response system (PERS) pendant or bracelet, they might not mind — or even notice — a house monitoring system.

EchoCare is an always on, non-intrusive home monitoring PERS designed to issue automatic alerts for safety and emergency situations — and it includes a disruptive fall detector with a very low rate of false alarm.

Once installed in a standard-size senior apartment, EchoCare continuously monitors four essential body indicators (location, posture, motion, respiration) using a low-power radio frequency sensor that doesn't compromise the resident's privacy. When the system detects an emergency, it sends an alert to the designated contact person.

In addition to being a resource for falls, EchoCare also recognizes situations such as nighttime stress (e.g., sleep apnea), prolonged time in the bathroom, hyperventilation, and absence from the kitchen (is the senior eating properly?).

Why one senior wanted to end it all

You might think being ill, or seriously injured like Ellie, is the worst that could happen at an advanced age. But loneliness is an insidious invader. As people grow older, they watch friends and family die or move away, and the loss can become almost too great to bear. One Millennial's grandmother, alone in Taiwan after her family relocated to the U.S., became more and more depressed. Finally she told her daughter, "I should just kill myself."

The problem is huge. Over 800,000 aging adults with Alzheimer's disease live alone — half without caregivers — and loneliness contributes to cognitive and functional decline.

Inspired by the plight of his desolate grandmother, and recognizing the magnitude of the problem, Victor Wang created GeriJoy, a caregiving companion that uses a special tablet and remote caregiving team to provide personalized, 24/7 emotional support and stimulating social interaction to seniors living alone.

The companion is an adorable dog avatar for global caregiving staff, providing real-time, compassionate, touchscreen "pet therapy" for dementia patients. Seniors adore their personal "pet" that speaks English, and some families have reported cognitive improvement in their elderly loved ones from the daily contact.

Other benefits of the monitoring service include detecting and reporting senior abuse, and medication reminders.

Mind over matter: data-driven family decisions

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s in 2017 — and this number could more than triple by 2050. With someone in the U.S. developing dementia every 66 seconds, how do you know if, or when, an older loved one is becoming cognitively impaired? That's where MyndYou comes in.

MyndYou is a mobile platform that monitors cognitive, physiological and behavioral parameters to provide data-driven dementia care insights. Its unique algorithm leverages data from sensors to detect changes, and conveys their implications, together with recommended actions and therapies, to family members. Because MyndYou allows families to make decisions based on objective information, it can improve quality of life for all involved — and hopefully delay the need for a senior's move into a care facility.

One important practical application: alerting families of people with early stage mental decline as to when the affected elder should relinquish the car keys. Giving up driving is often devastating for older adults; yet with or without cognitive impairment, seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of 7 to 10 years, according to the American Automobile Association. Now families will have data to support their concerns.

Diagnosing disease before it develops

Some seniors might not mind a PERS, wearable or home-based, or even a mental health assessment. But they may object strenuously to visiting the doctor if they feel fine.

Iowa startup ITR Diagnostics is pioneering non-invasive preventive medicine: digital biomarker panels to help physicians and researchers identify and monitor patients with neurological diseases, such as Parkinson's. During a checkup, a doctor will be able to detect a glimmer of future disease, years before it develops.

Early detection and diagnosis, especially with neurologic conditions such as Parkinson's, which are often not diagnosed until late in disease progression, will allow people to make changes that can significantly impact their health and overall quality of life.

In Parkinson's disease, for example, there are strong benefits to targeted exercise programs such as bicycling. Now you'll have medical back up to get Mom or Dad off that couch (or smartphone) and out into nature — and they'll become more physically fit in the bargain.

I see what you're saying!

While hearing loss can occur at any age, and can be inherited or illness-induced, age-related hearing loss, known as presbycusis, is a slow, stealthy assault. Approximately one in three people over 65 have some impairment; nearly half of those over 75 have hearing difficulty. Because the loss is gradual, someone may not realize it's occurring, and instead place the blame on noisy surroundings or "people who mumble".

Diagnosing hearing loss is now as close as your smartphone. HearScreen is an innovative mobile health app developed in South Africa — the world's first clinically valid, low-cost hearing screening solution on a smartphone. That's the good news.

However: once an elder knows the severity of his or her hearing impairment, even the best hearing aids may not solve the problem, because hearing aids amplify rather than clarify speech. Thus, rhyming words that differ only in the initial consonant, such as "tin" "pin" "fin" and "win", can still sound maddeningly similar. And texting may be difficult for seniors who aren't adept at tapping their talk onto tiny screens.

The solution: a phone that flips the texting equation. CapTel, short for "captioned telephone", is a U.S. government-subsidized service utilizing state-of-the-art captioning technology to translate speech to text. A hearing-impaired senior speaks into the CapTel phone as they would any other telephone; the recipient's reply is displayed as text, using VoIP.

Unlike a smartphone, the larger CapTel screen (tablet or laptop size) makes it easy for older eyes to read what's being said. Of course, since software translation isn't perfect, what appears onscreen is occasionally amusing, like the closed-captioning on some YouTube videos.

To help protect older ears, CapTel also offers this advice, beyond avoiding noise and wearing protective ear gear when using loud appliances.

Who will speak for me?

Technology is so smart these days, even the iPhone has a voice in Siri. But how can a senior who can no longer talk, due to a stroke, cancer of the larynx, or other physical/mental/emotional challenge, communicate? Perhaps they can text, but just as with hearing impairment, this may not be a viable, or complete, solution.

In the past, people turned to assistive devices such as a picture board, or touchscreen that used pictures or symbols. The speech-impaired person might touch the image of a glass to ask for a drink of water. While such devices can be customized, they're still a far cry from full communication. And they only work in face-to-face interactions.

Now, in the age of smart, comes Smartstones, the most advanced way to access literacy and core language using simple gestures.  Smartstones is a tactile, handheld sensory device that remotely controls its companion :prose app to allow users to speak phrases aloud with taps and swipes. The senior sets up key words and phrases for the :prose app, such as "Hello," "I'm fine", "Yes" and "I love you", and simply swipes to "speak". Another feature, Smartstones Touch, adds light, sound and vibration patterns that correspond to each gesture, enabling the user to send a clear message — from a distance.

EMOTIV Pure•EEG™ Raw EEG Software
EMOTIV Pure•EEG™ Raw EEG Software

A user can even add an emotive function via an EEG headset powered by brain wearable Emotiv, enabling the first thought-to-speech solution that is affordable, accessible and mobile. Users can record and command up to 24 unique phrases that can be spoken aloud in any language.

So if you thought you'd never hear Mom or Dad speak in that tone of voice again, you're in for a sweet surprise.

Like hearing aids for the eyes

picture of woman wearing NuEyes Easy Smartglasses for Low Vision
picture of woman wearing NuEyes Easy Smartglasses for Low Vision

They're not fashion-forward, but NuEyes may be the ultimate wearable for the visually impaired: voice activated smartglasses that help people see again. Created by two veterans using technologies originally designed for military use, NuEyes works with a senior's existing prescription eyeglasses and functions similar to a tablet or smartphone, streaming images via a built-in digital camera. A pair of NuEyes weighs less than an iPhone, and is easier to use than TV.

NuEyes look somewhat like VR goggles — and to a senior with low vision, may feel like that when they first put them on and experience the joy of seeing again. Because the technology is so new, these glasses are on the pricey side at $6195, and not covered by insurance at this time.

Yet the futuristic features included in the "Pro" version may offset the sticker shock: the ability to browse the web, check email, and even stream movies directly to the glasses! And with the full functions of an Android tablet with downloadable Android apps, NuEyes might make the wearer feel like he or she is emulating Star Trek's own android, Commander Data. For aging Trekkies, this could be part of the appeal.

Just be aware of the need for prudence: these incredible wearables are not waterproof, and you can't drive with them on.  This is a very innovative product for sight impaired elderly living alone.

Can you smell that?

Speaking of becoming bionic, one company has developed an electronic nose. Based on nanotechnology, the e-nose will interface with any smartphone. And it does more than help a senior who loves baking to smell those chocolate chip cookies in the oven. Creator Samuel M. Khamis explains how, with just a whiff, the e-nose will be able to sniff out information about someone's metabolic state and the number of calories being burned, in real time.

So a senior who's been sneaking forbidden junk food can kiss this indulgence goodbye. If you've been trying to get your beloved elder to eat more healthfully in order to shed those extra pounds, the electronic schnoz does double duty: it can help people lose weight — and warn users well in advance of a potential asthma attack.

As the company refines this technology, it will be useful for many additional health applications based around breath analysis.

The ultimate undergarment

For the mature woman, it's even better than Spanx: a bra that functions as an early breast health-screening device. Cyrcadia Health introduces the iTBra™, a comfortable, discreet, intelligent bra insert whose multiple sensors detect circadian temperature changes in breast tissue. These heat changes correlate with the increase in cell activity associated with breast tumors.

The wearer's smartphone or computer transmits anonymized data from the iTBra™ directly to Cyrcadia for analysis; within minutes, results are automatically communicated to the wearer's health care provider.

This aware-able is essential, especially for older women. Every 19 seconds, a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. However, 40 percent of women have what's known as dense breast tissue (DBT), which is harder to image using traditional mammography — and 71 percent of all breast cancer occurs in women with DBT.

Breast tissue changes over time; as women age, their breasts can become more dense. Thus, trying to find breast cancer in DBT is "like trying to find a snowflake in a snowstorm," explains one doctor. The iTBra™ offers a different way of looking, with the ability to diagnose breast cancer in older women that may be missed by traditional screening methods. It will likely save many lives.

Your mother's no slouch

"Dowager" might once have been a term of respect for a dignified older woman, but the dreaded "dowager's hump" deserves no respect at all: it refers to the forward curvature of the spine, typical in older women with osteoporosis, that results in a stoop. Besides being unattractive, the stoop can lead to, or increase, back pain, which is endemic to modern society.

According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, more than 26 million Americans between the ages of 20-64 experience frequent back pain. This number undoubtedly skyrockets with age, though those 65 and over are least likely to report. However, given seniors' disproportionately higher risk for falls, it's safe to say that back and neck pain are fairly common ailments.

Enter Lumo Lift, a senior's posture coach. The free app tracks posture and provides feedback though subtle vibrations from a small sensor that magnetically clasps onto a shirt, below the collarbone. Lumo Lift lays against the body, gently reminding the wearer to sit up straight and stand tall when they're slouching. Bonus: standing straighter also helps a senior look and feel younger, which boosts confidence. And that's the best way to get over the hump.

This isn't what twenty-somethings mean by power clothes

Some seniors experience more severe mobility issues than poor posture, such as great difficulty getting out of a chair. Superflex is an assistive technology for older adults that aides their aching joints. The Menlo Park, California-based startup is creating "intelligent wearable strength" that merges robotics, biomechanics, and textile and apparel design into a power suit to improve mobility for elderly and/or disabled people.

While still in the prototype stage, Superflex's sensor-equipped, computer controlled clothing, when ready to ship, will be able to track the posture and movement of someone's body and rapidly process data to send a motor "assist" when the wearer is leaning forward in a chair, getting ready to stand up, or even starting to raise their arms above their head.

Originally developed at SRI International to help reduce injuries in soldiers carrying heavy loads, the power suit's team is doing the heavy lifting, so seniors won't have to.

No skeletons in the closet

A senior who needs even more mobility assistance than what Superflex plans to provide won't have to wait: Ekso Bionics is innovating for those who've had strokes or spinal cord injuries. For more than a decade, the global pioneer in robotic exoskeletons has been developing the latest technology and engineering to help people rethink current physical limitations and achieve the remarkable.  This is truly an "assistive" technology for older adults.

These innovative products for elderly unlock human strength and potential, amplifying mobility and endurance. In 2016, Ekso Bionics received the first FDA clearance exoskeleton for use with stroke and spinal cord injury levels to C7. Watch this short video of an older stroke patient using the ExsoGT is inspiring; Nick says, with tears in his eyes, "I was walking before, but nothing like this."