Home > Uncategorized > Big data, technology, and the elderly

Big data, technology, and the elderly

December 7, 2015

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.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. bf
    December 7, 2015 at 8:18 am

    I thought exactly the same as SLA robbed my mother of her ability to talk. The hospital treating her suggested no kind of technological answer, and by the time I figured out that some such resources existed (also in Italian!), her disease had progressed into dementia, rendering the question moot.


  2. bhaugen
    December 7, 2015 at 8:38 am

    As an aging person whose ears and eyes are failing, and who also has an even older relative whose mind is failing as well, and who is also a computer programmer, this is a very interesting topic. I don’t have any immediate great ideas, just saying thank you for posing the problems so clearly. (And registering my interest in new comments…)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. December 7, 2015 at 10:42 am

    I wholeheartedly agree and I was so upset at the lack of technology for people to feel in control in the early stages of dementia, rather than being tracked or monitored, that I decided to create an app that helps the user retain dignity, confidence and independence. We’re in development and hope to launch in the spring.


  4. December 7, 2015 at 10:49 am

    I hear you, Cathy.

    My wife could use an exoskeleton suit to help her walk, but alas, no one in NYC is pursuing that beyond a study that NYU did. But it is on the horizon.

    As a Boomer, I could use a smartphone that has embedded reading glasses built in with a setting for the proper magnification. (Resizing fonts doesn’t hack it.)

    My mom could use a much better hearing aid that uses principles of big data and better technology.

    The market’s there and it’s big enough, but the young ‘uns doing disruptive technologies aren’t yet focused on it.


  5. December 7, 2015 at 10:59 am

    Heather Interesting!

    > >


  6. Albert
    December 7, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    Reblogged this on sonofbluerobot.


  7. December 7, 2015 at 11:40 pm

    I’m just interested in something that will help my friend read his texts, emails and mail. He had a stroke last year and suffers from aphasia, and has extremely limited reading and writing skills. He has us to help him with reading, however this is mostly him sending a screenshot of the message and getting us to call him back with the detail, or the summary! We would love just a simple app that he can just get straight out there and USE without any complication or fuss. Life should be easier, not harder. There has to be something.


  8. December 8, 2015 at 10:52 am

    There was a piece in last week’s Spark (from the CBC) on using technologies for people suffering from dementia. It also touched on things like this.


  9. Kari
    December 8, 2015 at 12:39 pm

    Here’s a link describing a class at Cornell that focused on high-tech apparel to assist people with various problems seen in an older population. Not sure all the ideas were practical, but at least it’s on the radar there. http://news.cornell.edu/stories/2015/12/students-design-nanotech-solutions-elderly


  10. Laocoon
    December 14, 2015 at 10:20 am

    As someone who just got her Medicare card, I’m squarely in the bulge of the baby boomers. I can’t wait for self-driving cars, since my husband and I live in a semirural, beautiful area that is unfortunately totally car-dependent.

    There are so many adjunct tech needs to the self-driving cars when it comes to serving children and the elderly. I’d love to send my husband to a doctor’s appointment, or a grandchild to school, but there is no support for that person upon arrival unless we change how we do things. I can foresee electronic tracking and, for example, not letting the individual out of the car unless the tracker gives permission or unlocks the doors (but there are potential hazards there, too).

    I’m also finding that seniors aren’t very tech savvy for the most part and many have a hard time even imagining what tech can do for them. Boomers are a little more up on it, but anyone older most likely hasn’t been paying attention over the years and lacks the skill sets to just try tech stuff to see how it works (they are so timid and afraid of making a “mistake”). In most cases, someone skilled has to set up the devices for an older person, and the need will be there as seniors age and decline.

    Tech will only develop effectively for seniors if the designers and developers really study and map out the needs of the elderly as we really live, not according to some idea of what they think we need or want. “Hey, Siri-bot, order me a pack of English muffins, four bananas, and a pound of ground Breakfast blend coffee and send the car to pick it up (or order drone delivery).”

    I can’t wait for the advent of assistive robots. Single-level living is fairly common for us older folks, and a robot who can help with daily tasks would be awesome. Combine the iPhone, the Roomba, medication dispensing, medical device monitoring, drink service, home automation, and all the TV remotes, and much assistance could be provided simply at low marginal cost. Of course, programming and restocking would be issues. But I can’t wait for “Hey, Siri-bot, call the car for me, please,” and “Hey, Siri-bot, did you let the dogs out?”


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