By Matt Perry, California Health Report
Grandma just sent her first email. Tonight, she’ll log in to see the latest pictures of her grandkids. And her doctors and children can monitor her health from around the world at any time.
Armed with mounting research linking social isolation to illness, technology firms are marketing electronic solutions aimed at older adults in senior living facilities with two goals: network them socially, and monitor their health continuously.
This new electronic wave – loosely termed eCare – is speeding electronic adoption by older adults with a robust set of features that integrate social interaction with health monitoring.
Socially, it means linking older adults online. They can now surf the internet via larger graphics, record oral histories, stay abreast of community events, join online communities, or email and video chat with friends worldwide.
Healthwise, seniors are reminded to take medications, visit the doctor, and check blood pressure or glucose levels. Daily results are recorded online where doctors, family members and caregivers can track them. For some adults it can mean video conferences with distant health specialists. Doctors then get a fuller health picture instead of seeing patients every few months when they might miss key health events.
While the solutions are digital, for older adults and their caregivers the benefits are intensely personal.
“It’s providing care like we used to do, when we lived next door to one another.” says Harry Bailes, CEO of Family Health Network.
The company, headquartered in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, is one of a growing number of firms in a nascent but growing industry. As they jostle for market share, each tout unique features. For Bailes, though, it means solving a single problem for older adults:
“Do I really matter to people any more?”
The health impacts of solitude are well documented. Depressed individuals are four times more likely to develop heart disease. And death rates are consistently higher for those who are single, divorced, or widowed.
Jeff Pepper’s family history is typical of many executives in this industry.
Pepper created his firm Touchtown after his father entered a retirement home and was suddenly cut off from friends, hobbies, and familiar activities. Pepper immediately noticed a significant deterioration in health.
Pepper’s goal: “To bring older people back into touch with the activities, people, situations that they really care about.”
The flagship product for the Pittsburgh-based Touchtown is a complete television station for residential facilities. Now with more than 1,200 users after 13 years, program content is split between local senior facilities and their regional headquarters.
Losing a sense of purpose is even more acute for men who “have a tough time getting engaged with the superficial activities of senior living,” says Pepper. “What people really crave is not entertainment, but involvement.”
“The elderly have no problem with technology,” says Kian Saneii, CEO of San Diego-based Independa, which delivers its eCare solutions on several devices. “They have a problem with poor design.”
Saneii trumpets his company’s two products, saying they need no previous computer knowledge. Seniors who are completely computer illiterate can receive reminders about medication, appointments, and birthdays by phone.
Older adult residents can also place a simple phone call to record and archive their life histories.
Independa then centralizes all data on its servers for easy distribution to cell phones, computers, tablets, or even specialized TV sets.
“Your medication reminder pops right up on top of your programming,” says Saneii.
Care Innovations, a well-heeled joint venture between Intel and General Electric that launched its Connect portal in the spring of 2011, sees itself at a distinct market advantage because of its robust healthcare planning, collaboration, and documentation tools.
“Most technologies want to stay away from health, because it has (further) implications to it,” says Jim Pursley, general manager for Independent Living at the Roseville-based firm.
Some companies target just one area: social networking and entertainment or – like Care Innovations – health.
“Unless you solve all those problems together you are still spinning your wheels,” says Saneii.
Experts unanimously agree that eCare technologies have a surprising health benefit: they bring older adults squarely into the digital age.
Adult caregivers frequently have the same observation about seniors who send their first email: “They haven’t seen someone so animated or alive for a long time,” says Bailes.
Saneii describes another advantage of health monitoring using technology: it removes the burden of medical hassling from the shoulders of family members.
“If I only didn’t have to ask my dad about his health I’d have a much better phone conversation,” says Saneii.
While more older adults are going online every day, their experiences with new eCare systems aren’t always smooth.
“It really needs a hell of a lot of improvement if they’re ever going to have any use of it,” says John Fraser, 88, former head of legislative affairs for Pacific Gas & Electric and a resident of the Eskaton Carmichael adult living facility outside Sacramento. “It’s kind of like a kindergarten toy almost. It just seems like whoever put that thing together was on a different planet than I’m on.”
Betty McNairy, who uses Family Health Network’s Connected for Life at Well Spring Retirement Community in Greensboro, North Carolina, likes having pre-written email templates to speed her responses.
She also likes sharing her medical information with concerned family members and attaching 30-second voice files to her emails.
“It’s amazing what you can say in 30 seconds if you plan it well,” says McNairy, 83, a former first grade teacher.
But McNairy hasn’t yet been able to use other features of the system.
“I don’t think I’m quite ready to grade it yet,” says McNairy, echoing a common sentiment. “I don’t think we realized we were quite so close to the cutting edge when we got it.”
One area of potential growth is that eCare technology can differentiate adult care facilities looking for a marketing advantage in a competitive market.
Although most counties in Californian expect their populations over 60 to double in the next 10 years, stark economic realities and dwindling retirement savings mean senior living facilities will be fighting for clients.
Adults are also staying healthier longer and are determined to stay at home as long as possible. Pepper says most Baby Boomers won’t even consider senior living until their 70s or 80s.
Pepper said his TV station became more attractive to adult living facilities when it doubled as a marketing tool.
“We found pretty quickly it was much more valuable to our customers if we could deliver this on their website for prospective customers.”
In California, eCare systems are only slowly working their way into the senior care market – both senior living facilities and home eldercare.
AgeTech California surveyed senior care providers around the state and found that only 13.5% used some sort of social connection technology – from the simplicity of Skype to full-blown social networking hubs.
Just 3% of adult care providers were planning to adopt the technology in the coming year, according to the firm’s 2011 Provider Technology Survey.
Although nearly 20% of providers wanted to learn more, over half reported not using the technology at all – or planning to.
Still, developers are looking hungrily at the untapped market – both nationally and abroad – according to AgeTech California’s executive director Scott Peifer.
“There is tremendous growth potential in the next five years.”