Big data, technology, and the elderly
The last time I visited my in-laws in Holland, I noticed my father-in-law, who is hard of hearing, was having serious trouble communicating with his wife. My husband was able to communicate with his father by patiently writing things on a piece of paper and waiting for him to write back, but his mother doesn’t have that patience or the motor control to do that.
But here’s the thing. We have technology that could help them communicate with each other. Why not have the mother-in-law speak to an iPad, or Siri, or some other voice-recognition software, and then that transcription could be sent to her husband? And he could, in turn, use a touch screen or his voice to communicate back to her.
This is just one simple example, but it made me wonder what the world of technology and big data is doing for elderly, and more generally for people with specific limited faculties.
There was a recent New York Times article that investigated so-called “Silver Tech,” and it painted a pretty dire picture: most of the tools being developed are essentially surveillance devices, monitors to allow caregivers more freedom. They had ways of monitoring urine in diapers, open refrigerators, blood sugar, or falls. They often failed or had too much set-up time. And more generally, the wearables industry is ignoring people who might actually benefit from their use.
I’m more interested in tools for older people to use that would make their lives more interactive, not merely so that they can be safely left alone for longer periods of time. And there have been tools made specifically for older people to use, but they are often too difficult to use or to charge or even to turn off and on. They don’t seem to be designed with the end-user in mind very often.
Of course, I should be the first person to point out that there’s a corner of the big data industry that’s already hard at work thinking about the elderly, but it’s in the realm of predatory consumer offers; specifically tailoring ads and services that prey on confused older people, with the help of data warehousing companies like Acxiom selling lists of names, addresses, and email addresses with names like “Suffering Seniors” and “Aching and Ailing” for 15 cents per person.
I know we talk about the Boomers too much, but let me just say: the Boomers are retiring, and they won’t want their quality of life to be diminished to the daytime soap opera watching that my grandmother put up with. They’re going to want iPads that help them stay in touch with their kids and each other. We should make that work.
And as the world lives longer, we’ll have more and more people who are perfectly healthy in all sorts of ways except one or two, and who could really benefit from some thoughtful and non-predatory technology solution. I’d love to hear your thoughts.