As we get older, our to-do lists seem to get longer and longer. Did we wash the dishes? Take our medications? Turn off the oven? Pay those bills? Do those exercises? Follow our prescribed diets? It’s difficult to keep track of all of the moving pieces in our lives. Thankfully, our reinforcements have arrived. Wearable technologies like patches, watches, and even digitally enhanced clothing can allow older adults to manage these expectations and age in place more independently than ever before.
Bridging the Digital Divide
Referencing “older adults” and “technology” in the same sentence often evokes images of wrinkled thumbs fumbling over a touchscreen. A technologically-incapable silver-haired adult is a running trope in the age of technological innovation. Older adults seemingly exist on the other side of “digital divide” from their younger counterparts.
The digital divide refers to a gap in digital literacy and access. Furthermore, discussions about the digital divide suggest that people who have access to digital technologies and know how to use them achieve a leg up in our highly technologized society. While the digital divide definitely exists, claiming that older adults cannot use or benefit from technology undermines their independence and limits the potential of future technological interventions. Older adults might have a steeper learning curve for figuring out new technologies, but integrating technology into everyday life can improve their digital skills and enhance their overall wellbeing.
An enhanced sense of independence through self-monitoring and telemedicine is just one of the benefits of wearable tech—smart” electronic devices that you wear on your body as clothing, accessories, or even implants. Currently, most of these technologies perform at least two functions: 1) they track and record personal data (such as heart rate, temperature, body fat, location, steps, breathing rate, etc.) and 2) they communicate this information across space.
Over the years, the market for wearable technologies has grown significantly as these devices have become increasingly interconnected. While early wearables like LifeAlert could send a phone call to emergency care personnel, current technologies can make phone calls, detect when a person has fallen, take an ECG, and even call local healthcare providers by using the wearer’s location.
Healthy Aging Technologies
Wearable tech helps bridge the digital divide. It also encourages healthy aging by promoting digital literacy, connection, preventative care, and a sense of independence.
Learning by Wearing
For many older users, a device’s interface can be challenging to navigate. Wearable technologies, on the other hand, provide a simple instruction: wear this device. Most people know how to wear a watch, a necklace, and even a pair of underwear (yes, smart underwear is a thing). On the surface, smart devices such as these only ask the user to change products—not practices.
Many user experience (UX) designers note that designing software and hardware for older adults means meeting them halfway. That means that wearable technology mixes something familiar with something new. When it comes to understanding one’s generated data, many wearable devices use “design metaphors.” These metaphors connect digital touching to older ways of touching. For example, the Apple Watch keeps the side knob (used in analog watches to adjust the position of the hands) and allows users to scroll by spinning it.
Wearable technologies allow users to better maintain communication with loved ones and healthcare providers in case of emergency. In the days of LifeAlert, falling in a room or position without access to a landline phone marked a major concern. Even with the proliferation of smartphones today, a person could easily fall without their phone nearby.
Wearable technologies like smartwatches can help. Users wear these devices on their bodies without the need for pockets or purses. Given their water-resistant designs, many of these devices could prove invaluable in locations like the shower or bath tub. A wearable device greatly increases one’s capability to be connected to a helpful support network at any time or place.
Older adults’ health could benefit tremendously from the data collected by wearable devices. A visit to a doctor’s office only provides the healthcare provider with a snapshot of somebody’s bodily conditions. By measuring such factors as heart rate, blood-glucose levels, and body fat more regularly, doctors could better understand the “big picture” of a person’s health. This process of measuring and analyzing personal data is a highly important part of precision medicine.
Additionally, older adults can track themselves to better self-regulate. Most wearable technologies allow users to personally engage with their data. For instance, studies have shown that a good night’s sleep is essential for staving off symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related dementias. Therefore, a person who uses a wearable to track their sleep could ascertain the quality of their sleep. They could then make changes by themselves—without having to consult a doctor unnecessarily.
Currently, around one million Americans live in some type of senior living community. And that number is expected to double in the next 10 years. Despite these staggering numbers, nearly 90 percent of adults would prefer to age at home. Wearable technologies that increase older adults’ connectivity could allow them to more safely and confidently live in their homes as they age.
Tracking and maintaining one’s personal health can also promote personal agency and independence. By knowing more about the day-to-day function of their bodies, older adults can wield more power in making healthcare decisions and in their conversations with healthcare professionals.