Adopting elder-friendly technologies may level the health care playing field as shortages loom in the number of professionals equipped to care for older adults.
Older adults often say that technology is the realm of the young. Statistically, it’s true that people under the age of 65 use digital devices to a greater extent. However, it’s the older generations that stand to benefit most from all technology has to offer.
As America ages, it’s estimated that by 2020, nearly 40% of the country’s population will be over the age of 50. Although the increasing number of older adults presents many challenges, one of the most intimidating concerns focuses on health care. Studies predict that by 2025, the United States will experience a massive shortage of health care professionals, marked by deficits of about 155,000 physicians and 500,000 nurses. With more elderly patients requiring care and insufficient numbers of health care professionals to provide it, it’s imperative that we find new solutions to help older adults remain healthy.
Technology could provide the answer to keeping elderly Americans healthier, at home, and independent as they age. Two areas are already pioneering the way: medication management and telemedicine.
As we age, we rely on medications to maintain and improve our health. While medicine can help many elders to retain their independence, the American Heart Association cautions: “Poor medication adherence takes the lives of 125,000 Americans annually, and [it] costs the health care system nearly $300 billion a year in additional doctor visits, emergency department visits, and hospitalizations.” Medication adherence is a serious problem that might have a simple solution.
Medication management apps and pill dispensers ensure that older adults follow their medication schedules. These technologies prompt users to take their measured doses at the prescribed times. Many apps send reminders when it’s time to refill a prescription along with pharmacy contact information so the user can reorder medication within the app. There are also apps, designed for the family’s peace of mind, that track whether a pill bottle has been opened and how many pills have been removed. It’s estimated that medication management technology increases adherence by 40%, potentially saving 50,000 lives and $120 billion each year.
Telemedicine and video conferencing make a huge impact on the health of older adults who use it. Through cameras housed in computers, tablets, and smartphones, physicians “visit” their patients in the comfort of their own homes. Not only does this save time, allowing providers to see more patients, but it also drastically reduces costs, including travel, overhead, visits, and missed visits. A recent study by Accenture focused on a community in Spain where one in five patients uses telemedicine. The study concluded that these virtual visits decreased the number of hospital stays by 52,000 and saved the community $55 million—in just one year. As telemedicine gains HIPAA compliance and more insurance companies cover the cost, the positive influence this technology can have on the aging generation is profound.
Elders’ Technology Adoption
These two examples are only a sampling of the medical technology that can bridge the widening gap between the number of patients who need care and the number of medical professionals available. Unfortunately, many older adults are hesitant about embracing technology.
Some older adults’ hesitation stems from a lack of comfort or confidence in using devices. In fact, according to Pew Research, more than 77% of Americans over the age of 65 say they need help using their computers, smartphones, or tablets. Most of this discomfort arises from fear of doing something wrong, breaking the device, or not understanding use and operation. However, according to one of the surveys at iTOK.net, an extraordinary 95% of older adults would use medical technology if their physicians recommended it, and 91% would use it if it lowered their insurance costs. How can we help those who need medical technology the most incorporate it successfully into their lives?
Educating Older Adults About New Technology
The answer comes in three stages, the first of which is education. The best way to help elders adopt health care technology is to teach them how to use it. It’s time for our industry to take an active interest in educating older adults about technology because the interest is there. The Older Adult and Technology Use survey by Pew Research shows that 71% of older adults who use technology are passionate daily users. All they need is someone to get them started and guide them along the way.
There are ways for older adults to access the education they need. Communities often provide computer classes in senior living centers, community centers, and libraries. For those who want more formal training, most states, colleges, and universities offer free tuition benefits for older adults. There are even national programs such as OATS and OASIS, which focus on computer education for people over the age of 55. However, too many of these programs, especially at the local level, suffer from a lack of funding and volunteers. And attendance depends on a level of mobility that many aging adults may not have.
Creating Elder-Friendly Technology
The second stage is to create elder-friendly technology, that is, devices designed for older adults’ usability. While younger generations line up for the newest “it” gadgets, most elders crave technology that feels familiar and easy to use. They prefer robust devices designed with intuitive buttons, straightforward navigation, and fewer “bells and whistles” to minimize confusion and avoid mistakes. Rather than chasing the latest and greatest, they choose devices that are cost-efficient. The tech industry should keep these tenets in mind when creating devices for the older adult market.
Supporting Elders With Technology
The third stage is to offer ongoing support. People make mistakes and discoveries when adopting new technology; there’s a learning curve to different devices and operating systems. However, most older adults admit they don’t want to ask for help, fearing that they’ll be a nuisance, look foolish, or be talked down to. Furthermore, it’s challenging for older adults to describe technical problems over the phone to tech gurus who can’t see their devices. Elders need strong support from local family members and friends, but when that isn’t an option or becomes inconvenient, remote tech support services can step in to fill the role. When older adults know they have someone to call who will patiently fix and explain problems, they’re more comfortable using their devices.
With our growing elder population living longer than ever, it’s critical that we use technology to solve and relieve health care woes. By providing the education and support they deserve, as well as designing devices that prioritize their needs, we can help older adults improve their health and maintain their independence, empowering them to enjoy happier, longer lives.