In an ageing world, a growing market for technological innovations for the elderly is giving Logan a run for his money.
We’re living longer. The world is ageing rapidly and while in many ways this represents a success story, a triumph of development, better nutrition, sanitation and economic well-being, it also poses its own particular set of social and economic challenges.
The figures are impressive with, over the next 15 years, the number of people aged 60 years or over in the world projected to grow from 901 million to more than 1.4 billion according to the Population Division of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs. By 2030, older people will outnumber children aged nine or younger and by 2050, there will be more people aged 60 or over than adolescents and youths aged ten to 24 years.
The media may be full of stories about the pressures on society of supporting an ageing population, of stretched healthcare and social services, gaps in the job market and a lack of funding, but a market for technology that aims to help the senior members of society is steadily growing. The dystopian future society depicted in ‘Logan’s Run’ where the population and the consumption of resources are kept in check by killing everyone who reaches the age of 30 will be staying firmly within the realms of 1970s’ science fiction if current technological innovation and research are anything to go by!
Mobile devices, wearable gadgets, and Internet-based technologies will help older adults remain in their own home, leading independent lives for longer while monitoring their health and safety. We’re already starting to see telemedicine, remote patient monitoring and online medical records; add to this the increasing number of apps for the elderly and a growing trend is evident.
One such technological solution developed by researchers from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, is aimed at enhancing the physical health, vitality and brain fitness of seniors residing in independent living communities. Called eSeniorCare, the app, developed by the university’s Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science and Applications (iCeNSA), creates a personalised socio-ecological construct around the senior.
There are many apps currently available for the elderly that target different areas, such as blood pressure trackers, pill reminders, help with reading, games and cognitive stimulation, but these have limited to no ability to integrate with care providers. In addition, these applications do not incorporate the various components of ageing in one platform, unlike eSeniorCare, which sets out to combine a whole range of tools and support within the one app.
Professor Nitesh Chawla, director of iCeNSA and lead principal investigator on the project in collaboration with the Memorial Hospital Community Health Enhancement Team, said: “We wanted to develop an app that was holistic in its approach towards successful ageing. An app that enabled a data-driven personalised experience for the participants, enabling communication between the participant and the care provider team. Thus, eSeniorCare is a manifestation of a vision towards personalised health and wellness for seniors. It is an intersection of data, machine learning, and technology for the common good.”
One of the traditional challenges of these communities is how care-givers and nurses can provide support in an environment where they have many patients. eSeniorCare aims to provide a continuity of care allowing health workers to proactively reach out to at-risk seniors when they need help, while still allowing them to maintain their independence, helping to empower and engage. Seniors are able to connect with care providers by sending concerns and questions as text or voice recordings.
Dipanwita Dasgupta is a fifth year graduate student in the University’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering and has been part of the project since its inception in 2012, helping to conceptualise, develop and implement eSeniorCare, as well as conducting user studies for its validation.
Here she describes how the app works, and its aims: “eSeniorCare has two components: a tablet-based Android application used by the seniors and a web portal accessible to the care provider. Successful ageing includes management of chronic conditions, maintenance of physical and cognitive health, and active social engagement…These tools should connect the seniors with their care providers (remotely located) for ensuring continuity of care. The increasing popularity of tablets among seniors should be exploited to develop these tools.
“The application aims to empower the seniors to take charge of their own health, while staying connected with their care providers. All the information from the application is accessible by a web portal to the care provider. He/she receives information on different components of the application. In case of any missed medications, the care provider follows up with the senior, thereby tracking adherence. Set goals can be used for resource management like organising programmes to help achieve those goals.”
As might be expected, when seniors first begin using the tablet app, there is a degree of trepidation. However, two pilot studies have demonstrated an enthusiastic uptake of the app. In collaboration with Beacon Health System, eSeniorCare was first rolled out at two senior independent living facilities in South Bend, Indiana.
In a pilot study following implementation of the app, the researchers tracked the medication management component for three months and the daily activities component for seven months. They found that seniors’ technology comfort and literacy increased, and there was also an increase in interpersonal interactions among all participants.
As Dipanwita explains: “[The app] is easy to use as the seniors are involved in the design process. We provide training to make them familiar with the application and technology as they have little to no exposure to technology. We noticed an increase in their technological skill as well as a reduction in risk for depression.”
In a second pilot study currently underway at additional independent living communities, the researchers are tracking the brain games, activity and health data and medication components of the app. Their initial results reveal high engagement with brain games; patients reporting a sense of purpose and increase in mental stimulation; and the use of the communication component to connect with care providers and maintain positive relationships described above.
“It is about personalised healthcare,” Prof Chawla said. “It is about the individual. It is about how we can bring data and technology together to help empower the ageing population to live healthy, independent, social and productive lives. It is about making a difference.”
Future plans for the app are to incorporate the learning from the pilot studies, and then scale via partnership with independent living facilities, as well as developing a version for the elderly living in their own home as well as those in assisted living facilities.
As Prof Chawla adds: “The compelling need is this: a personalised health and wellness platform for seniors that takes into account physical, social/cognitive, emotional components, while enabling a (digital) ecosystem of health care services, care providers, and social and community networks. This is the promise of eSeniorCare.”