Tech Gadgets and Older Adults: What Helps, What Doesn’t

Written By: Guest Contributor - Mar• 16•18
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Specialized gadgets–and accessibility features on smartphones–can enhance a senior’s quality of life.

By Allen St. John
March 08, 2018
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New technologies, even successful ones, often seem more like toys than tools—for most of us, telling a smart speaker to turn on the lights is fun but not really life-changing. But digital advances can make a big difference to older adults, making it easier for them to maintain social contacts, monitor their health, and preserve their independence.

Experts in aging say that caregivers sometimes hesitate to introduce new devices to seniors, assuming they’ll resist learning how to use them. But it’s often untrue.

“I’ve seen the opposite,” says Michael Wasserman, M.D., a geriatrician and CEO of Rockport Healthcare Services, which provides clinical and professional support to nursing homes. “Older adults can easily embrace a lot of tech resources.”

The key, according to Wasserman, is finding the right devices. Some general-use electronics, such as smartphones, feature impressive accessibility functions. Other devices, designed specifically for older adults, can ease both physical and social challenges.

However, experts say, a number of gadgets designed for seniors overpromise and underdeliver.

Wasserman and others in his field offered some tips for finding the best electronic assistance, for yourself or for older friends and relatives.

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Look for Mainstream Devices

Seniors don’t always need specially designed technology. Mainstream gadgets are a good place to start because they’re often economical, easy to find, and designed for customization.

Smartphones are a prime example. Some phones, like the Jitterbug, are marketed specifically to older users, but ordinary Android devices and iPhones include a variety of powerful accessibility features, combined with high-quality screens and great performance. And they don’t have to be expensive: There are many good, affordable phones in CR’s ratings (available to members), and you can often find discounts on models from previous years.

On an iPhone, go to Settings > General > Accessibility and you’ll see many options, such as closed captioning on apps that support it and a built-in magnifier that uses the phone’s camera. You can also reduce the potentially confusing animations that play when apps open and close, boost the screen contrast or type size to make things easier to read, and more.

Android phones have a menu of similar functions, including TalkBack (a function that enables the device to speak user-interface commands), which can be found under Settings > Advanced > Accessibility.

Check out other settings, as well, to adjust factors such as the size of icons and the brightness of the screen and to create contact lists for close relatives and medical providers.

Beyond phones, these can range widely, from a Fitbit to monitor activity levels, to a smart speaker such as an Amazon Echo to introduce some voice-activated home automation, to cars with advanced safety features such as lane-departure warning. An electronic tracker, like a Tile, can help people keep track of their keys or a TV remote.

And, Wasserman says, the greatest benefit of today’s technologies may be to address the isolation that often accompanies aging. “One of the most important things is socialization,” he says. “There’s nothing like FaceTiming with your grandson.”

Focus on What’s Really Useful

Something like a smartphone or Fitbit may have obvious utility, but how do you decide among the many other technologies clamoring for attention, many of them designed specifically for use by seniors?

“It’s difficult to know what’s going to be the most viable,” says Nancy Avitabile, board president of the Aging Life Care Association, a national group of geriatric-care managers. But, she says, you can start by asking, “Will this enhance the user’s quality of life?”

Wasserman says the most useful products targeted to seniors tend to be those designed for a specific task. He points to practical devices like a stabilizing spoon for patients with hand tremors, or an inexpensive smart blood pressure cuff that reports readings directly to the doctor’s office instead of requiring the patient to keep a log.

On the other end of the spectrum, according to the experts, are devices that are promised to deliver broad, ill-defined benefits—say, a robotic puppy marketed as a device to keep grandma company.

And as in any area of technology, a even a good idea can yield a poorly executed gadget.

“A lot of design for older adults hasn’t been all that good,” says Bruce Leff, director of the Center for Transformative Geriatric Research at Johns Hopkins University. “They don’t understand the needs of adults with physical impairment or cognitive impairment.”

It can be a positive sign if a company already had a solid track record of making elder-care devices—such as ADT and Philips, which are known for their personal emergency response system devices—but it also pays to carefully consider a gadget’s controls and features and imagine how well a product will work for the specific person using it.

“We talk a lot about delivering ‘person centered’ care,” Wasserman says. “We need to understand that everyone is an individual and one size does not always fit all. You need to be willing to try things and see how the individual responds.”

Further, a device a senior finds useful now may become frustrating as his or her condition changes.

Avitabile reminds caregivers to also consider low-tech solutions. For instance, a GPS tracking device could be a vital tool for a loved one with memory loss, but users can forget to charge the devices—or forget them altogether. She encourages caregivers to supplement these beacons with a low-tech “safe support bracelet” with the patient’s address and phone number printed on it.

Finally, she warns against becoming too dependent on the devices. “Technology isn’t a replacement for individual care.”

Safeguard Seniors’ Privacy

Experts say there’s one more thing to consider as you weigh the benefits of technology, for yourself or someone you’re caring for: the delicate question of privacy. This arises with many devices that caregivers may use to monitor the safety and well-being of older adults.

Avitabile notes that many seniors have expectations of privacy—especially as it relates to sharing personal information—that are different from, say, their grandchildren’s expectations.

An obvious privacy challenge comes if there’s a security camera with a motion detector in a senior’s home to help family members monitor their well-being—it may not be obvious to everyone that these cameras can continuously beam video across the internet to other people’s phones or computers.

You may face subtler privacy challenges, too, ranging from how to keep prying eyes from seeing personal information displayed in large type on a tablet, to how delicate information is reported to a medical caregiver.

As an example, Avitabile points to a newly developed urinary tract infection sensor. The device analyzes a patient’s urine and can detect some signs of infection before symptoms appear. (For purely medical reasons, it’s smart to consult a physician before using such a device, Wasserman says, because they have the potential to lead to unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions.)

Avitabile says that the sensors could be a godsend for some patients. But for others, a UTI means TMI: too much information.

“It’s a very personal” device, she says. “After all, it’s in your underwear.”

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