Patient with smart watch measuring vital signs IoT for seniors
Photo Source: Adobe Stock Photos

One of the most pressing challenges in our aging world is to ensure that older adults get convenient, affordable, and reliable health assistance and support for activities of daily living so that they can continue to live independently. This article explores the promise of using the Internet of Things (IoT) in healthcare for senior care. Not only can this technology be used to help seniors become more independent and active without health-related setbacks. it can also create a gateway to social inclusion for isolated seniors. 

It is crucial to help seniors maintain their
desired quality of life without 24/7 supervision.

One of the straightest paths towards achieving that goal is to harnesses IoT for healthcare.

What is IoT?

Iot is a term used to describe a wide variety of devices that connect to the Internet and can send and receive all sorts of data. IoT in health care specifically refers to devices that help individuals, often in collaboration with professionals, help someone maintain or even improve their health and well-being.

Some of these devices are used for wellness activities, such as fitness, nutrition support, improved sleep, and so forth. Others are designed to help people with chronic conditions participate more fully in self-care. Yet others, help make everyday activities easier and safer. 

IoT technology transforms “dumb” objects into “smart” ones. For example, a traditional bedside light must be turned on manually. But a smart light can be activated by voice command or a command sent via a mobile phone.

For many of us, these devices make life more convenient. For others, including seniors with physical limitations, these devices can make their homes safer and can mean the difference between independent living and dependent care.

The global healthcare IoT market is expected to reach a whopping $534.3 billion by 2025. And, the range of IoT technologies continues to expand. It now encompasses mobile apps, voice-aided assistants, medical and fitness wearables, embedded sensors, and more. Increasingly, these technologies are melded into a patient-centric network.

Further, they support senior care across an ever-widening range of clinical conditions, including many that focus on improving areas considered “wellness”, such as fitness, nutrition, and brain health.

Health, wellness, and condition management

Technologies are now readily available that can help with the management of many different chronic conditions. Some of these increase in prevalence as the population ages, for example:

  • Management of high blood pressure

There are a wide variety of simple-to-use devices that can provide accurate measurements of blood pressure. These range from blood pressure cuffs to devices that fit on the wrist or the finger. The results can be stored digitally for automatic or manual transmission to the care team.

  • Cardiac rhythm and rate monitors

Many smart devices can be used record the pulse rate. This can be useful in conditions where tachycardia (fast heart rate) may herald a worsening of a condition, such as heart failure..

Further, there are multiple devices, including some smartwatches, that can be used to capture an electrocardiogram (ECG). They range from hand-held devices (like the Kardia) to wearables, such as smartwatches. Others are implantable.

  • Diabetes

There are a wide variety of devices to help patients with self-care of diabetes. These include glucometers, continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) systems, and insulin pumps and smart socks to detect early skin changes from an infection.

  • COPD

IoT pulse oximeters and pulmonary function tests can help people with chronic pulmonary disease track their current status or response to self-treatment. There are also sensors that can monitor air quality, an important factor in some exacerbations. Smart inhalers can be used to ensure medications are administered properly.

  • Arthritis

Seniors with arthritis may find it difficult to manage simple tasks, such as setting a timer, closing a blind, or opening a lock. There are smart devices, including voice-activated devices like the Amazon Echo that can be set up to make these activities easier for people with limited mobility.

  •  Managing medications

Smart pill boxes can be used to ensure the right medications are being taken at the right time. 

  • Mobility

Activity trackers, devices to help with home Physical Therapy, smart canes,    wheelchairs, smart orthopedic implants

  • Hearing aids

Unfortunately, many seniors experience hearing loss that may or may not be diagnosed. This leads to difficulty participating in conversations and can be the source of negative feedback from loved ones who tire of having to repeat everything even though they beg the senior to get a hearing aid. Luckily, new hearing aids have many improvements over the old version that many seniors still believe are their only option.

Many models are I0T enabled allowing the user to modify settings via a mobile phone. Not only can loudness be adjusted, but background noise can be blocked and close-up conversations enhanced. 

  • Sleep monitors

    A variety of sleep monitors are IoT are available to help seniors and their caregivers monitor sleep quality.

  • Infections

Digital thermometers, pulse ox to detect or monitor for pneumonia

  • Depression, anxiety, and other disorders of mood

 

Sensors that can monitor subtle changes in a senior’s activity can provide insight into mood changes that can herald the onset of depression.

Some of these conditions may require surgeries or lead to complications resulting in disabilities.

Most of these devices are accompanied by a specific mobile app that can be used to transfer data to the care team. Some are able to automatically transfer data directly into a consolidated mHealth application for a fuller picture.

The data on vitals can be used for further analysis to create health trends.  Data can assist in setting personal goals for activity, manage chronic conditions, and customize patient alerts and notifications for their care team members and family.

As you can see, healthcare IoT can address different combinations of an older adult’s medical care needs, helping doctors prevent acuities and balance treatment.

Overall, the system of connected medical devices gently refocuses the senior’s priorities from constant worrying and repeated measuring to actually living.

Making the home safer

Iot can help seniors achieve or maintain autonomy in keeping with their wishes to continue to live independently. 

  • Home security

Many home security systems are now IoT enabled, including indoor and outdoor cameras, smart locks, and motion sensors. These devices are controlled via an app on the phone allowing seniors to lock their doors on turn on lights without much effort. Smart Doorbells, such as the Ring, can allow seniors to see who is at the door without opening it. They also record videos so that suspicious activity can be reported to the authorities.

Smart environmental sensing devices, such as smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, can alert occupants of pending dangers. Because they can be controlled by the app, they can easily be disabled in the case of a false alarm, such as smoke created if food accidentally gets burned. Thus, there is more climbing on ladders to push the little button to turn off the blaring alarm.

  • Alert systems for falls or inactivity

IoT enabled bed pads can be used to alert caregivers when the senior has left the bed for some reason. Other devices are activated by falls or when there is limited or no motion suggesting the senior is in trouble.

Boosting social inclusion

Social inclusion is challenging for the older population, as they may occasionally experience ageism when visiting their doctor, communicating with a family, or just going about their business.

It’s also no secret that some seniors become isolated and even neglected, especially when they have specific care and assistance needs. Healthcare IoT can assist older people with becoming less isolated by providing them with multi-level connectivity and a number of socialization channels. For instance:

  • Communication apps for smartwatches and bands to connect neighbors and create affinity groups
  • Companion robots and robotic pets (ElliQ, Buddy, PARO, etc.) to play music, cuddle, and interact
  • VR sets for pain management, boosting physical activity levels, and entertainment (such as playing co-op or solo games)
  • Telehealth systems for getting physician consultations and follow-ups at home
  • Health monitoring devices, sending notifications and alerts to caregivers and family members about the senior’s health status changes

Having access to several channels at once, seniors can feel involved in different activities both indoors and outdoors.

They can train cognitive skills and have fun with games, meet new people, and interact with their loved ones or caregivers in a comfortable way while excelling at harnessing breakthrough technology.

IoT for seniors must be user-centered

If developers have no idea how the intended system will be used in the real world by real elders, they won’t be able to deliver a convenient solution with intuitive navigation. It is important that actual users are involved in the development of these apps and devices.

Here are some of the issues senior users can struggle with

    • complex installation
    • tiny fonts
    • inconveniently placed buttons on super-sensitive touchscreens
    • obscure titles
    • confusing designs

To ensure high adoption, mobile app developers should hand their solutions to actual users and let them try the devices and connected apps in daily life for at least a month. In this way, all interface issues, bugs, and problematic features can be found and fixed.

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Patricia Salber, MD, MBA

Patricia Salber, MD, MBA is the Founder. CEO, and Editor-in-Chief of The Doctor Weighs In (TDWI). Founded in 2005 as a single-author blog, it has evolved into a multi-authored, multi-media health information site with a global audience. She has worked hard to ensure that TDWI is a trusted resource for health information on a wide variety of health topics. Moreover, Dr. Salber is widely acknowledged as an important contributor to the health information space, including having been honored by LinkedIn as one of ten Top Voices in Healthcare in both 2017 and 2018.

Dr. Salber has a long list of peer-reviewed publications as well as publications in trade and popular press. She has published two books, the latest being “Connected Health: Improving Care, Safety, and Efficiency with Wearables and IoT solutions. She has hosted podcasts and video interviews with many well-known healthcare experts and innovators. Spreading the word about health and healthcare innovation is her passion.

She attended the University of California Berkeley for her undergraduate and graduate studies and UC San Francisco for medical school, internal medicine residency, and endocrine fellowship. She also completed a Pew Fellowship in Health Policy at the affiliated Institute for Health Policy Studies. She earned an MBA with a health focus at the University of California Irvine.

She joined Kaiser Permanente (KP)where she practiced emergency medicine as a board-certified internist and emergency physician before moving into administration. She served as the first Physician Director for National Accounts at the Permanente Federation. And, also served as the lead on a dedicated Kaiser Permanente-General Motors team to help GM with its managed care strategy. GM was the largest private purchaser of healthcare in the world at that time. After leaving KP, she worked as a physician executive in a number of health plans, including serving as EVP and Chief Medical Officer at Universal American.

She consults and/or advises a wide variety of organizations including digital start-ups such as CliniOps, My Safety Nest, and Doctor Base (acquired). She currently consults with Duty First Consulting as well as Faegre, Drinker, Biddle, and Reath, LLP.

Pat serves on the Board of Trustees of MedShare, a global humanitarian organization. She chairs the organization’s Development Committee and she also chairs MedShare's Western Regional Council.

Dr. Salber is married and lives with her husband and dog in beautiful Marin County in California. She has three grown children and two granddaughters with whom she loves to travel.

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