June 30, 2013
By Heather Somerville
Posted: 06/21/2013 06:30:00 PM PDT
Silicon Valley tech companies have made hundreds of gadgets and apps for smartphone-addicted teenagers and young professionals. But now, there’s technology just for grandparents.
New online and mobile services to help aging adults live alone in their own homes and ease the burden on their caregivers are cropping up across the Bay Area. From in-home sensors that monitor when a senior leaves the house or takes medicine, to wireless technology that allows elderly patients to get medical treatment without leaving home, this emerging technology can dramatically improve lives for seniors and entire families, according to tech business leaders and experts on aging.
Until recently, the tech industry has largely ignored the elderly. Valley entrepreneurs and developers tend to be in their 20s, and many have focused only on building smartphone apps and Internet services that make life more convenient for consumers the same age, said Iggy Fanlo, co-founder of San Francisco-based Lively, a wireless technology for aging adults and their caregivers. “It’s a youth obsessed culture,” Fanlo said.
But Silicon Valley companies have the chance to create technology with a greater social impact, and probably get just as rich as they would building a video game or shopping app, said David Lindeman, director of the Center for Technology and Aging in Oakland.
“These areas may not be sexy in terms of the latest and greatest device, but they will have the broadest and longest-lasting social impact,” he said.
By 2030, 20 percent of the U.S. will be age 65 and older, and more of them will live longer and more independently in their older years than any time in history. In 2010, more than 220,000 Bay Area residents age 65 and older were living alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The age to enter a nursing home is inching up, with one study putting the national average at 89.
With older relatives living longer and staying at home, there is often more of a burden on the caregiver to help with medication and doctor’s visits, and daily tasks such as cooking, errands and home repairs. Tech companies are beginning to step in and help.
Next month, Fanlo and his team will launch Lively, a sensor-based technology that tracks an elderly person’s movements at home. Small wireless sensors are placed around the house — on the bathroom door, refrigerator or pill box — and count on average how many times the pill box opens or how long the elderly person stays in the bathroom. Lively figures out the person’s daily routine, and if something goes awry — maybe the pill box opens only once, but the medication has three daily doses — the company will alert family, friends and neighbors with text messages and emails.
Patrick Guerra of San Martin said he’s been searching for a remote monitoring technology like Lively to “provide a tremendous amount of security I don’t have today.”
Guerra, who works in high tech, helps care for his 87-year-old mother and 88-year-old mother-in-law who both live alone and have health problems. After a recent weekend away in Las Vegas, he called his mother-in-law and got a busy signal. Worried, he drove to her house in Los Gatos to discover she had bumped the phone off the hook. About a year ago, she slipped into a coma state after missing a dose of medication. Guerra said he found her nonresponsive on her couch.
“The issue is just not having this anxiety and wondering, ‘Why aren’t they answering the phone?’” he said.
Home repairs can also cause anxiety for older people living alone and their caregivers. ClubLocal, a free Web service and mobile app that launched in parts of the Bay Area this month, does background checks on plumbers, handymen and electricians, and sets the price of each service to prevent dishonest markups, said founder Zorik Gordon.
Gladys Lowenstein, 62, recently hired a plumber through ClubLocal to fix her swimming pool in Willow Glen. “We are always worried about being safe and making sure people aren’t taking advantage,” she said. “Over the age of 60, and getting a repair person to your home is not an easy task. You’re increasingly vulnerable.”
Advances in wireless technology are helping seniors get medical care without leaving home. Oakland software company Sovran is working with an Asian health tech company, ConnectedHealth, to provide technology that remotely measures a patient’s glucose levels and other vitals, reducing visits to the doctor and hospital stays.
Companies face numerous challenges in making technology for the elderly. Many seniors don’t use cellphones because of deteriorating eyesight and motor skills, and they often don’t have an Internet connection or a computer. Others live on a fixed income, such as Social Security, and can’t afford new technology.
“It’s not as easy … as putting together an app or a game,” Lindeman said. “But we’re just at the beginning.”