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A constellation of technologies can help aging populations thrive and live independently — and for longer. These include AI and self-driving autos, remote monitoring (with privacy protection), a full and dynamic data profile and cellular connectivity to selected intelligent sensors and mobility aids. By reducing the care that individuals require, advanced technologies and data become force multipliers for caregivers and create a better future for the elderly.
These technologies can’t be adopted fast enough. In 2015, the world had 900 million people age 60 and over. In 2050, there will be 2 billion of them. Here is a quick look at several promising areas of innovation that address the crisis in aging.
Let’s start with Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is full of promise and — at times — hype. There seems to be no doubt that AI will greatly impact elder care and assistance, playing a role in different areas where automation must be supplemented by decision-making. As an example: AI can avoid costly false alarms, determining when a person has knelt down to pick something up or go into a yoga position, versus a fall followed by near immobility on the floor.
Particularly in healthcare, AI helps monitoring technologies fill gaps in human care, reducing both the costs of care and the demand for caregivers, without affecting the quality of care. These technologies are designed as a substitute for human monitoring by collecting data on older adults to develop target treatments and achieve the best outcomes in the management of any condition.
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Now, let’s consider a leading-edge application of AI that may give seniors safe freedom of movement for many extra years: Driverless cars.
AI powers self-driving vehicle frameworks. It seems almost inevitable that AI will have a dramatic impact when autonomous vehicles allow older people to greatly extend their years of traveling on their own to medical appointments, shopping and social visits. However, there are obstacles, including cost factors, and distrust among some elders. Alarming headlines have told of Tesla vehicles with fully automated driving systems involved in multiple fatalities, and the public recoils. Other statistics, however, indicate strongly that driverless cars have actually surpassed the safety of human drivers already — and then some. Tesla’s official data claims one accident per 4.31 million vehicle miles. Apples-to-apples comparisons are tricky, but the NHTSA statistics from 2020 indicate one accident per 538,000 miles driven.
It seems highly likely that the AI used in autonomous cars will continue to learn and improve, along with other supporting technologies like LIDAR, and consumers will come to understand the reliability and safety advantages. The result will be a profound extension of independence for seniors; ideally, they will also gain several additional years with little need for assisted transportation in slow, inconvenient shuttle buses and costly taxis.
More intelligent remote patient monitoring (RPM)
Connected devices for remote patient monitoring (RPM) allow healthcare providers to follow, analyze and report on patient/client conditions and to serve more clients at once.
The monitoring can take place almost anywhere the user goes, and enable independence by providing more continuous observation and faster treatment when needed. Deploying the right RPM around older adults can improve their health, safety and independence, allowing self-management of care and enhancing their communication with caregivers and medical providers for timely, personalized interventions.
RPM reduces the need for elders to have in-person caregivers “watching” them, and allows more time at home, versus prolonged stays in a post-op facility after surgery or treatments.
Well-chosen devices with advanced sensor technology do more than summon emergency help; they free relatives to take a job and sustain their families. The options for monitoring sensors range from implanted medical monitors to intermittent-use tools such as blood pressure cuffs, to wearables or other “go-with” devices. As their cost drops with higher production volumes, more advanced sensors are built into products for the end customer. For example, the motion sensors in Apple Watch can help track symptoms of Parkinson’s disease to assist patients and their physicians.
These monitoring sensors collect a wide range of data from lifestyle patterns and movement, to pulse and body temperature, providing caregivers and medical professionals valuable real-time insights into a senior’s health and daily life that go beyond relatively infrequent doctor visits.
Data and connectivity
It’s useful to take a step back and consider the entire data picture of an older person that can be used to improve and sustain their independent living. Data generated through monitoring does more than feed automated and AI-based systems that play a role in their care.
For healthcare purposes, the data can enable the identification of patterns, trends and unexpected changes. It’s a matter of assembling and updating the dynamic view of each person that will help keep them safe and independent. Medical, psychological and security considerations come into play here, and can guide the types of monitoring put in place around the aged person. Their usage of the toilet, the front door, and shower can be helpful indicators to track. Privacy and security protections are essential, particularly with vulnerable elders being targeted by a heavy volume of scams and borderline exploitations.
As the RPM and data view of elders is filled out, and AI-based analytic applications are continually trained to higher capability levels, predictive prevention has the potential to transform public health. An ongoing stream of patient data will allow an elder’s medical team to identify risks better and initiate help before a crisis occurs. For instance, warning older adults and their relatives about a newly heightened risk of falling, and recommending proactive measures, would enable timely interventions to prevent serious injuries.
Mobility: Safe or too perilous?
Living comfortably in one’s own home, rather than an institution, is a prime goal of many older people. New technologies, some drawing on AI, extend the feasible timeline for such independence by years. Privacy-conscious systems, from cameras to fall detectors, can be installed to help safeguard older patients remotely at a much lower cost than in-home care, assisted-living facilities and nursing homes. They support self-management of care and enhance communication with caregivers and medical providers for timely, personalized interventions.
When the user walks outside, wearable and go-with devices continue to assist at a reasonable cost. This gives more independence to those with certain chronic illnesses or mobility impairment. For older adults, RPM innovations can improve their health, safety and independence. It is notable that physical mobility aids have not fundamentally improved much in recent centuries. The canes of the pharaoh King Tutankhamun, who had a disability, were functionally identical to walking sticks today. Millions of mobility-impaired people can benefit from new product designs that add safety functions (such as a built-in night light and GPS) to familiar mobility aids.
Increasing independence and safety
This brings us to falling, a peril of staggering dimensions for older adults. Falls are the leading cause of traumatic brain injury and hip fractures for elders, and annual costs from falls exceed $50 billion in the U.S. alone. Monitoring technologies — embedded, for example, in a smart cane — can detect increasing risk of falling by measuring and analyzing gait speed and movement patterns. There are positive implications for public health from the ability to collect mobility-related data on millions of elders via assistive devices.
Moreover, emergency response systems and location tracking technologies can be used to allow caregivers to easily locate seniors who are prone to wandering, at risk of falling or require immediate assistance. This serves the goal of increased independence with safety.
Tying the pieces together
There is a wide range of new technology that leverages data to collect information for proper caregiving. AI, however, is what can sew it all together in a holistic solution that expands independence and mobility, reduces the need for expensive caregivers, and detects subtle and important changes in health and activity. Data generated by in-home and wearable sensors will unlock timely and personalized solutions. Given the dimensions and urgency of the crisis of aging, the market for innovation in technology for elder health and well-being will continue to flourish.
Human caregivers will always anchor elder care, but we need to embrace technology that mitigates the impact of aging. This will extend your grandparents’ — and your own — timeline of living at home, enjoying mobility and travel, remaining active and contributing to the world, avoiding mishaps and delaying dependence on costly care.
Ahmad Alghazi is CEO and founder of CAN
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