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Insights Sensing

Aging Independently: Sensing’s Potential to Enrich Our Later Lives

Sensing technology is poised to invigorate the home health care movement and open up unprecedented benefits for seniors.

We all know the facts. The US elderly population is huge, (relatively) wealthy, and growing. As this influential group expands, we face a basic question that is proving tough to answer: how and where can we best care for each other as we age?

Over the next 20 years, the number of older Americans will expand by 78%. By 2045, around 84 million Americans will be aged 65 or over. Today, baby boomers—the largest demographic cohort in US history—control 70% of US disposable income and account for 49% of all spending on consumer packaged goods. Boomers got bank, and they are quite clear about how they want to spend it.

Extending Independence

We in the design community have an opportunity to dramatically improve senior citizens’ experience as they transition from independent to supported living environments. Their challenges are widely variable and nuanced. After all, we’re talking about people and their families, and all the associated emotional ups and downs triggered by these changes.

In understanding the life experiences of seniors, their families, and their caregivers, one need comes to the fore again and again: the need for control. As our bodies and brains experience the inevitable wear and tear of old age, how do we maintain control over our emotional and physical selves? How do we continue to use the stuff of our daily lives—maintain our routines, nurture our connections, and interact with our environments—in ways that maintain and even improve our sense of control?

We know what people want – to be at home. Nearly 90% of those over age 65 want to stay in their residence for as long as possible, according to a 2010 AARP survey. Four-fifths state that their current residence is where they always hope to live. We also know that it is more effective, efficient, and certainly cheaper to care for people in their homes compared with a hospital or similar care facility.

The design community understands that the goal is to live as autonomously, safely, and comfortably as possible, independent of age, income, or physical abilities. Indeed, studies show that when we are able to deliver on this desire, a cascade of benefits follow, including greater life satisfaction, improved health and higher self-esteem of the elderly, along with corollary benefits to their families and friends.

Sensing’s Promise

Sensing technologies, coupled with intelligent information services, and right-time, right-people connectivity, promise to make at-home care more accessible, while also potentially reducing costs and improving medical outcomes. As sensing technologies evolve, they will dramatically enhance the connections between the data ecosystems multiplying in our daily lives, starting with personal data and the quantified self, and extending to smarter homes, cars, telehealth, and digital medicine.

To understand the synergy between our needs and the promise of emerging technologies, frog conducted primary research in the homes of elders and their families. We also engaged with professional caregivers and other home care experts. The interviews explored a range of topics, including: personal experience, family dynamics, professional demands, the impact of changing medical conditions, and financial strain. We also investigated perceptions of institutional care settings, methods to sustain and enhance mental agility, healthcare innovation trends, and solutions for intergenerational connectivity.

Our research revealed four experience principles common to our seniors, which offer a guide to shape thinking about how to design the best solutions.

  • Identity – Help me stay me.
  • Sociability – Help me stay engaged.
  • Routine – Help me stay in control.
  • Activity – Help me stay mentally and physically active.

These principles help us to understand the challenges seniors face in their everyday lives in a more holistic and empathetic light. They are varied and often subtle desires, such as maintaining daily routines. Some are administrative, including medication adherence and managing medical appointments. Many are personal and emotional, such as dealing with change and staying connected to friends and loved ones. We found that creating useful and usable solutions for these scenarios nearly always means optimizing access to data about the elderly person, and facilitating the exchange of that data with their loved ones, caregivers, and medical teams.

Most importantly, this communication must be facilitated seamlessly across a myriad of places, objects, systems, and users. To be successful, each point of interaction must have a low barrier to entry, be easily accessible to all, and be capable of unobtrusively exchanging information with secure, cloud-based, often private networks.

Making a Sensing System

To explore how our findings might look, feel, and act in the real world, the frog team generated concepts focused around affordable consumer-facing products and services optimized for the home. Our goal: to create an ecosystem of connected devices that instantly recognize one another and communicate intelligently between themselves, with other necessary systems, and with the core user.

To do this, our team prototyped a low-cost network of wireless transceivers small enough to be installed in virtually any device. We then placed them in household objects and wearable accessories that seniors commonly use like nightlights, bedside alarm clocks, telephones, and coffeemakers. Using low-cost components (for under $10 per node) the sensors were small enough to hide in plain sight and required minimal to no installation.

Sensors like these—able to track well-being, biometrics, location, and more—hold enormous promise. They can unobtrusively enhance (even encourage) independence, improve overall health and well-being, and deliver critical decision-making data and peace of mind to all the people in the senior’s circle of care.

A seamless web of sensors that disseminate key indicators about movement, social activity, and biometric data will enable tomorrow’s seniors, their families, and care providers to focus on togetherness while offloading the taxing responsibilities of health and safety monitoring to a smart system able to do so more effectively.

These findings expand on a broader, ongoing trend in how people of all ages interact with sensors and data. Commercial wearable devices such as the Fitbit and Nike+ offer examples of how consumers are increasingly interested in gathering their personal information—movement, habits, tastes and behaviors—on a large and longitudinal scale.

Good To Be Home

For young and old alike, the trend towards more consistent tracking of behaviors points towards potentially dramatic healthcare benefits. High-fidelity information is critical in identifying emergent health conditions early, when medical intervention is most effective. What’s more, building open-data ecosystems of health and lifestyle information for varying demographics opens new possibilities to recognize and mitigate chronic disease patterns across a population.

Over the next decade, the adoption of location-aware, sensor-based networks in the healthcare environment will spread rapidly. This will be coupled with a smarter, more integrated structure of personal data sharing that will empower individuals to use their data to enhance their health and wellness.

With the huge increase in the number of baby boomers passing into retirement age, the market for information-based services and intelligent, high-quality medical care is set to expand dramatically. Low-cost sensor platforms and sensing-enabled devices present great potential for improving the everyday lives of seniors, while offering surety for those who cannot be with them. Networked, wearable, and embedded sensing devices will bring new capabilities to expand the reach and efficacy of care into patients’ lives.

Sensing technology is poised to invigorate the home health care movement and open up unprecedented benefits for seniors who desire to age at home, more comfortably, in better health, and more independently. Because, again: it’s good to be home.

Lindsey Mosby

Dedicated to the mission and vision of better care for each and every one of us, Lindsey leads frog's US healthcare practice.

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