There’s plenty of IT around to help the elderly—medical alert devices, medication reminder apps, Wi-Fi enabled scales and blood pressure cuffs, touchscreens with big buttons for Skyping with the grandkids—but one observer thinks there could be much more and better technology with a few commonsense tweaks to the paradigm. One, stop thinking of “the elderly” as a homogeneous and technophobic group, because for every 85-year-old who avoids newfangled gadgets, there are several who won’t go anywhere without their iPad. And second, don’t let young people have a monopoly on designing the products.

“The whole space of technology is being designed by the young,” says Laurie Orlov, proprietor of the Aging in Place Technology Watch Web site (www.ageinplacetech.com). She worked in IT for 24 years and was an analyst for Forrester Research (www.forrester.com) for nine years. She earned a certification in geriatric care management, and along the way realized that she was uniquely suited to analyze how technology can help aging people stay in their own homes. She started blogging on the subject in 2008, and in 2009 launched her own consulting business.

Orlov offers the personal fitness tracker Fitbit as an example of a technology that could really help seniors—if only the buttons and the screen weren’t so tiny. The device can track movement and send information to a smartphone app or website, and an associated scale tracks both body weight and fat percentage. “It is such a useful product and could be so effectively applied [for eldercare] if it were made in different versions, but real seniors—75 and up—aren’t buying them,” she says.

Orlov says young designers of health-related applications also are likely to miss key characteristics of the elderly user base. For example, 44 percent of people over 65 aren’t online at all, and they tend to earn less, be less educated, and live in less urban locations. All those characteristics may also mean they are less able to take care of their health, and would potentially benefit the most from the kind of apps and devices that monitor their vital signs or help them remember to take their medications. Something that works via telephone—for example, GreatCall.com’s Five-Star urgent response device that lets seniors request medical help wherever they are—may be a better answer than an Internet-based product.

Providers can use home monitoring and medical alert technologies to keep their elderly patients healthier and out of the hospital—if they have the incentives to do so. “We dream about the discharge person who says, ‘Mrs. Smith, you live by yourself and you just had a hip replacement. What technology do you have in the house to help you if you have a problem?’” Orlov says. “But that’s not what providers do.” While some providers act as resellers of support technology now, Orlov says Medicare reimbursement would remove the biggest barrier to widespread adoption.

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