Wearable Technologies for Older Adults
Wearable heart rate monitors
Wearable heart rate monitors for the elderly can be a great way to monitor long terms trends in heart rate data (measured in beats per minute), which can be an indicator of health and wellness. For example, a change in resting heart rate could be the sign of rising blood pressure. These devices are most commonly found in the form of a smart watch, but can also be a chest strap. Despite their value, relying on them to detect heart attacks and other cardiac events can be troublesome. As is the problem with all wearables for elderly people, they must be worn during all hours of the day to respond to emergency situations. In addition, many wearable heart rate monitors are not designed to be medical grade. Depending on the device, they may not even be able to send alerts if they notice a high heart rate or lack of a pulse. Most wearable heart rate monitors rely on a smartphone to be present, something that not all elderly individuals have. Most wearables that monitor heart rate need to be changed on a weekly basis. Is there someone available to help them remember to do this?
Wearable fitness trackers
As with wearable hear rate monitors, activity trackers and fitness trackers can be very valuable tools for encouraging healthy behavior that will result in greater independence. They can be great for “gamifying” walking, especially after a surgery or injury. Though pedometers worn on the hip still exists, they most commonly take the form of a smart watch. Be careful though: if the older adult uses a walker or other walking aid, the wrist may not move in a suitable way to measure steps. Rather than encouraging healthy behavior, you may be inadvertently putting older people at risk because they will not want to use their walker as much. For these people, it is far better to use the WalkWise walker attachment to measure activity levels and encourage walker use.
Wearable GPS tracking devices
For elderly people and seniors that do not carry a cell phone, a wearable GPS tracking device can be a good solution for safety when one leaves the home, senior living community, or long term care facility. Imagine going for a walk and getting lost! A family member or caregiver would be able to track your location. Many of the devices are water resistant, in case it ends up in the rain or a puddle. However, GPS trackers are not good solutions to prevent or track people from wandering away from home, which is a problem for many elderly people with dementia or memory loss. Why would you expect them to remember their GPS device on their way out the door? To avoid this issue, a few companies make “smart soles” for shoes that include GPS. Even more so than heart-rate monitors, GPS tracking devices are very power-hungry technology, making regular charging a necessity. Will someone remember to charge their shoes every day? Do they wear more than one pair of shoes? In our opinion, most people will be better off paying for a cheap smartphone and using a free app that can relay the location of loved ones at any time.
In recent years there has been much talk about a wearable airbag for the elderly, designed to deploy when a person is starting to fall and limiting impact to hips. Worn like a belt around the hips, the goal is to reduce hip fractures that result from falling. While an admirable goal, there are currently no wearable airbags for seniors on the market. There is also no science to support the claim that airbags will reduce hip fracture and not lead to other adverse outcomes. Such systems are likely to be confused by plopping down quickly in an armchair, for example. While it may not be so bad to have a call center give you call if they detect a fall, it would be terrible to have an airbag deploy if you weren’t falling. It may even cause a fall to occur! Very few people in health care have actively endorsed such a product. While you might find the idea exciting, do not pin your hopes of safety for an older person on a wearable airbag.
Some elderly people may need to have immediate communication with nearby caregivers. It’s important to remember that for walkie talkies for work, they need to be within range of each other. Thus, these only work for communication within a home. What’s more, the side button needs to be pressed in order to speak with the other device. In case of emergency, it could be difficult to find the walkie talkie, press the button, and speak. We recommend making it a wearable walking talkie by using a strap or lanyard. Walkie Talkies should only be used with the elderly for non-critical communication, such as a request for a beverage or for help using the bathroom. You’ll need another piece of technology in order to respond to emergencies.
Many wearable technologies are poorly designed for senior citizens and the elderly. Many are certainly worth trying, but you cannot know that they are being used 100% of the time. Especially when memory loss is an issue, remembering to charge and wear a device can be a huge obstacle. Smart watches can be great for trying to measure long term trends but are generally poor at emergency response. Whatever you choose to try, make sure to understand the limitations of the technology and have a backup system in place for emergencies.