How to Engage Seniors with Digital Health

December 10, 2019

Tech tools will help older adults manage their own care, but healthcare organizations must provide them with technology-powered care, versus tech on its own.

Engaging older adults in their healthcare can be challenging, particularly when engagement means adopting technology that feels foreign. With 76% of older adults in the U.S. intending to stay in their homes, according to AARP, tech services can have a huge impact on their independence and safety. However, technology alone can make this choice seem daunting.

With a high-tech, high-touch approach, pairing technology innovation with more traditional approaches like social work, maximum engagement, and improved health outcomes can be achieved. The key to making this partnership truly effective is removing the barriers to acceptance.

Misconceptions associated with healthcare technology  

Older adults must understand the true value of health and safety technology solutions to encourage adoption, but there are misconceptions to overcome first.

  • Using health tech makes me old. When older adults think of health technology like an emergency button, they’re likely to think they are only useful if you have a medical emergency such as a heart attack or a fall. This assumption is a major obstacle when it comes to adoption, particularly if older adults don’t feel they are old enough to really be at risk for a health emergency.

One way to transcend this “health tech is for old people” stigma is to instate a “press for anything” philosophy. Technology providers, healthcare providers, and even friends and family need to remind older adults that technology is not just for the frail. Medical alerts, for instance, are not just an emergency button, but part of an easy approach to safety, independence, connection to community, and resources available, developing a social support system for users.

  • Technology is only helpful in an emergency. Technology has the power to grant access to a broad range of resources, not just if a fall or other emergency occurs. For instance, technology can address Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) through offering access to clinical/medical consultation, community resources, education on chronic disease management as well as access to transportation (including ride-sharing services), assistance with utilities and financial services, mental health and emotional support, and more.

Technology services can also serve as a solution to the growing concern around social isolation and loneliness in older adults. The National Poll on Healthy Aging found that one in four older adults say they feel isolated from other people at least some of the time, and one in three say they lack regular companionship. Many tech services offer 24/7 access to trained agents or social workers who can provide emotional support during times of loneliness or depression by simply serving as someone to talk to or providing a connection to additional support services. Simple smartphones and voice-activated technology can make this even easier.

Related: What Senior Patients Want from EHRs: Surprising Survey Findings

Arming professional caregivers with actionable data

Health technology, such as emergency response devices, offer huge benefits to older adults, but there are other solutions that can change the game for senior care and independence. 

One growth area in technology for the senior market is passive remote monitoring, or the use of passive sensors in the home to learn patterns and identify changes in behavior that may signal a health issue. This information is then used to inform care delivery. The data gathered by passive remote monitoring arms professional caregivers with insight into a person’s behavior and helps him or her have the necessary conversations in order to get to the root of the problem––identifying an issue before it becomes a high-cost health event.

This is particularly effective when social workers are provided with this level of data and insight into a person’s activities of daily living. As social work is focused on evaluating a person’s health within their environment, passive remote monitoring tells social workers how their patients are interacting in with their environment when not in the presence of a social worker.

For example, consider a senior who typically eats three meals a day, then suddenly is only opening the refrigerator once per day. These sensors will alert a social worker or care manager of the behavior change, prompting them to ask about appetite. This allows social workers to pinpoint certain issues rather than just asking how they are doing, because the most frequent answer is, “I’m fine.”

This can lead to the realization that a change in medication has had significant impact on appetite. Data on accessing the refrigerator less often isn’t useful on its own, but the conversation around appetite is, as it could represent a change in physical or mental health.

Creating meaningful tech for the aging space

The number of Americans ages 65 years and older is expected to grow to 70 million by 2030. As this population grows, we’ll see more and more technology tools and services in the hands of older adults and professional caregivers, geared toward helping them manage their own health. However, managing their own health will likely require support at various points leading to adoption.

For companies looking to get involved and succeed in the senior technology space, it is crucial to lead with the senior experience in mind. While doctors, insurers, and technology providers all share the goal of keeping older adults safe and healthy. It’s important to remember that the senior will be the one interfacing with these technology tools. Older adults often require more support in integrating technology into their daily lives. For digital natives, downloading an app or paying bills online may be a two-minute process, but may be complicated and intimidating for an older adult, so asking for hands-on help should be made easy.

Ultimately, to encourage not just adoption, but true engagement with their own healthcare and safety, healthcare organizations must embrace a high-tech, high-touch philosophy and provide older adults with technology-powered care, versus tech on its own. This approach will ideally prompt a change in perception: technology doesn’t need to be complicated or symbolize a stage in the aging process. Instead, it can mean more access to better-informed care. 

Bryan Adams is chief commercial officer at GreatCall, a wholly owned subsidiary of Best Buy. Sherri Gerber-Somers, LMSW, is senior manager of commericial customer service at Critical Signal Technologies, a wholly owned subsidiary of Best Buy.