How wearables can improve independence for the elderly

Making wearables fashionable and more functional for the older population
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It's a known fact that reaching a significantly older age is increasingly likely with the kinds of technology and medicine available today. In the UK, the over 65 population grew from 9.4 million in 2011 to 10.4 million, encompassing 16% of the population. Similar growth has been reported in the US.

With an aging population, and many of us living for much longer comes the responsibility involved in caring for elderly relatives and loved ones - and your children caring for you once you've hit retirement age.

It's something you want to think about, and it can be a touchy subject. But like it or not, we're all going to be at that stage in life meaning a helping hand wouldn't hurt.

While residential care is an option, many people want to maintain their independence rather than feel like they're being treated as an elderly person. Home care is another option, but not everyone wants a stranger visiting regularly. That's where a growing trend of wearable devices aimed specifically at the older, independent market can help.

The global wearable medical devices market is estimated at $3.3 billion as of 2015, yet in contrast, $6.3 billion has been spent in the US alone on glucose test strips for blood sugar level monitoring. Diabetes is just one of the chronic diseases that the elderly frequently suffer from with 80% of senior citizens suffering from one or more chronic diseases. It's also a field in which wearables are slowly building respectability with projects such as a recent trial by the NHS paving the way.

Other concerns include dementia and numerous cognitive issues. A simple fall can easily turn into a much bigger problem if the elderly person isn't found quickly, with dehydration kicking in much faster the older you are. Given the prevalence of people living alone at this age, much needs to be done to ensure this won't happen.

Fortunately there are plenty of companies using wearables to hone in on this demographic to help combat these issues. Osterhout Design Group has already teamed up with several groups like NuEyes to provide smartglasses for ailing eyesight due to macular degeneration while iBeat is focused on keeping track of your heart beat around the clock.

Schrock Innovations' Allen Band and UnaliWear's Kanega Watch are two more wearables intent on keeping the older generation safe. We spoke with CEO Thor Schrock of Schrock Innovations and CEO and founder Jean Anne Booth of UnaliWear to find out what exactly has driven them to create their potentially life-saving wearables.

Falling with the Allen Band

How wearables can improve independence for the elderly

When Thor Schrock's father suffered a slow-motion fall from a chair in 2015, he was left lying on the floor for 24 hours before he was found. Due to pre-existing health problems, that period on the floor led to him losing between 40-60% of his body's muscle mass, with his kidneys seriously damaged. His survival chances were put at 33%.

After his fall, Schrock and his sister researched what could be done to ensure that their father could retain his independence, while staying protected in some way. That led to Thor Schrock developing his own device called the Allen Band. Named after Schrock's father, it's a wrist based wearable that detects falls. Timed at the moment of the fall, it requires the user to press a button to inform loved ones that they're ok. If the button isn't hit in time, the person's caregivers are automatically alerted that there's a problem.

Its simplicity means that it doesn't rely on any additional skills for the user. It also measures heart rate, whether the person has remained stationary for too long and if their body temperature has changed drastically.

"The most important thing to remember is you are designing technology for people who need the benefits of a device but lack the skills in many cases to use modern tech," explained Schrock. "…it is simply not possible to design a device that meets the expectations of a millennial while being operable by an octogenarian," he added. The key here is that senior citizens have vastly different needs to those younger wearable users who are accustomed to the technology of today.

"When designing the Allen Band we found that the vast majority of seniors did not want a touch screen of any kind. They preferred 3 physical buttons or less that provide a satisfying tactile response when pressed (like a click - not haptic feedback)," noted Schrock. He also pointed out that many elderly users don't have a smartphone, meaning a wearable that's dependent on Bluetooth connectivity is far from useful for them.

The Allen Band also has the advantage of being an one-time only cost. There's no need for contracts or subscription services, ensuring it'll always work. Besides being an inexpensive way of doing things, it further simplifies things for the elderly person, and the caregiver trying to explain the process.

Having launched an Indiegogo campaign for the Allen Band last year, he's successfully reached his target with the device currently in the manufacturing process.

Do more with the Kanega watch

How wearables can improve independence for the elderly

The Allen Band is far from the only device on the market too. When Jean Anne Booth's mother and aunt started suffering from infirmity, she researched extensively to find a device that would work well for her mother's needs. The issue? Her mother didn't want to wear any of the gadgets currently available because they were 'ugly' and 'stigmatizing'. Booth chose to come out of retirement having previously worked for Texas Instruments' Stellaris products, and founded UnaliWear.

UnaliWear has developed the Kanega Watch to improve users' independence while still looking like a regular, stylish watch piece. No smartphone connectivity is required, with the watch using a speech based interface rather than buttons. It reminds users to take their medication, plus it detects any sudden falls, or long periods of immobility. A 'guide me home' interface helps its elderly user find his or her way home, backed by voice activated assistance connecting to an operator who can arrange emergency help.

Booth explained the thought process behind Kanega Watch as a piece of technology that helps enable independence, instead of something that is complicated or awkward to wear.

"Different populations may have different needs given the situation they're in, but we're all people first and any other designation ("elderly" for example) second.

"We didn't set out to build a wearable for seniors. We set out to extend independence with dignity for millions of vulnerable people, especially seniors.

"Since we want to keep our population independent and safe 24x7, user-friendly wearable technology with a full suite of communications capabilities allows us to provide a real solution to a real problem for millions of people today."

Essentially, it's a matter of reducing stigma so that vulnerable people don't feel like they must sacrifice pride and independence in favor of their safety.

What's next for these wearables?

It's currently a slow path to true progression. Both the Allen Band and UnaliWear's Kanega Watch have been successfully funded through crowd sourcing, but they're not yet available to the public.

There's also the issue of accessibility to the devices. You can walk into many stores and pick up a fitness band like a Fitbit or Jawbone, but sometimes the backup of tech savvy relatives is needed for help researching products online.

What's clear however, is that such devices are on the right track. Having been developed by innovators with close ties to the situation, they offer many essential features that have the potential to be a daily aid - without looking like a junky piece of plastic, and without the unnecessary frills of say, an Apple Watch. Such fundamental improvements have yet to be noticed by significant industry backing which is something that's needed for the field to be taken more seriously meaning it still may be awhile yet before many of these products hit the masses.

This is just the beginning of wearable advancement for the vulnerable and elderly though. Much like the rudimentary fitness bands of a few years ago, these are the early stepping stones to something that could change elderly living drastically.

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Jennifer Allen


Jennifer is an experienced writer and editor with 10+ years of experience, writing for TechRadar, Lifewire, Digital Trends, Mashable, TopTenReviews, NME, and Eurogamer.

She's an expert in wearables, headphones, speakers, fitness technology, all things Apple, all things gaming.

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