The magic of technology isn’t only for the young and bold. As the largest demographic group of Americans enters retirement, many entrepreneurs are creating new designs to make life easier and more comfortable for seniors. One of the latest products that has created a lot of buzz in the tech world is the Apple Watch, which can hold a host of health data and even act as its own medical alert system.
But Apple isn’t the only tech titan making great, design-forward gadgets and other products for older adults.
Here are three ways innovators are adding flair to senior living settings with simple and sleek solutions that can also improve resident wellness:
Lighting the Way
Falls are one of the most common causes of serious injuries for older adults — as senior living providers well know. One out of five falls among seniors causes a serious injury like a broken bone or head injury, resulting in 2.5 million emergency treatments for older adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Luna Lights is a Chicago-based startup company that designs nighttime lighting for older adults, and already has completed pilots in senior living communities. It is seeking to reduce the devastating impact of falls with an innovative system that improves visibility during the night in a very simple way.
“We found that within [senior living] communities, these falls were especially concerning due to reduced staffing at night to actually respond if someone were to fall, as well as reduced resident visibility,” says Donovan Morrison, CEO and co-founder of Luna Lights. “We heard many stories of someone who had fallen in the night behind closed doors and wouldn’t be found until the next morning when someone noticed they hadn’t shown up to breakfast or a scheduled activity.”
There are many fall monitoring systems that can track the movements of seniors to alert caregivers, family members or physicians and indicate when a person is more likely to fall. Tracking devices can also alert caregivers after a person has fallen. Some of these products require adults to wear clunky, unattractive tracking devices at all times, even when they may feel safe in bed.
Using a small pressure sensor that lies on top of a mattress and under the covers, the Luna Lights system can sense when a person gets out of bed and automatically turns on a series of lights that can lead him or her to a destination. When a person returns to bed, the lights turn off.
The system is innovative because it requires no action from a person and requires no lifestyle changes, a common complaint among older adults using fall prevention systems.
“When we took a look around at the market for fall monitoring solutions that were out of there, we found that they either made people make some kind of lifestyle compromise that they didn’t want to or it felt very Big Brother, with sensors all over the place that tracked every movement,” says Matt Wilcox, CTO and co-founder of Luna Lights. “People don’t really want to be tracked in everything they are doing.”
To get around this hurdle, Wilcox and Morrison designed the system to be hands-free, but still kept the ability to monitor some key data points, such as the length of time a person is out of bed and how many times a person gets up during the night. This information, in the hands of caregivers, family members or physicians, can pick up on indications of a more serious health concern.
So far, Luna Lights has finished one pilot program at The Mather, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Evanston, Illinois, and plans to begin another pilot at Presbyterian Homes Lake Forest Place in Lake Forest, Illinois. Luna Lights will also be installed in 20 assisted living communities and will soon be available for purchase for the public at large. The results of the first pilot have been positive, the founders say. One participant even purchased his own lighting system after the trial concluded, Morrison says.
“What we are looking at right now, falls are the No. 1 cause of injury among people over 65 years of age,” says Morrison. “Even within assisted living communities, half of residents are going to fall in the next year. Those types of injuries that can be sustained from a fall can drastically decrease a person’s quality of life….Those kinds of situations are extremely scary and it’s only going to get more and more common over time. It’s something that really personally affected our families, and something that we really wanted to try to prevent.”
Swell Meals With Eatwell
Senior living providers are increasingly offering more sophisticated cuisine in ambitious dining programs to cater to a generation that prefers more options, but residents with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, may have issues when it comes to feeding themselves. As a result, some residents may not be getting all the nutrients they need because they are unable to recognize food or have physical limitations that make eating a challenge. Caregivers and family members may find it frustrating to get through a meal.
One innovative designer, Sha Yao, was a caregiver to her grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease when she had the idea to create a tableware set designed specifically for those with dementia and other physical impairments that can cause difficulty with eating.
“It’s very easy for the family members or caregivers of a person with dementia to get frustrated or feel helpless when that person loses interest or refuses to eat, and their health deteriorates or condition worsens from a lack of nutrition,” Yao tells SHN. “We wanted to do what we can to address these needs, and help the people who could use a little assistance.”
The result of her desire to help her grandmother is the Eatwell set, an assistive tableware set with over 20 specific features that simplify eating motions, prevent spills and increase food intake for users.
On the surface, the exterior of the set is brightly colored, which can help stimulate appetite. The interior of the tableware has a contrasting color, which helps distinguish food. Bowls are equipped with slanted basins to collect food on one side for easier consumption and a right angle to encourage easy gathering of food. And spoons are engineered to match against the curvature designs of the bowl.
These modifications are meant to increase the amount that a person eats and improve efficiency of their movements. Some of the features can have a big impact, according to Boston University’s “The Red Plate Study,” which measured the influence of bright colors in food consumption among Alzheimer’s patients. Researchers found that survey participants consumed 25% more food when eating off a red plate, and Yao incorporated the same appetite stimulation technique into the bright design for Eatwell.
Eatwell placed first in the 2014 Stanford Design Challenge for its innovative approach. The company launched a crowdfunding campaign last year to raise capital for production. Currently, eight out of nine tableware designs are available for purchase, with a new tray coming out next year.
“People are living longer on average, and populations are aging all around the world,” says Yao. “The number of people who will experience Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia is expected to increase dramatically over the next few decades, and providing sufficient nourishment and nutrition for these and other impairments will become a critical concern.”
Your Grandmother’s Skype
There’s an impression that seniors don’t like technology, and in the age of the smartphone and social media, being disconnected can leave big gaps between generations. This is especially true of families with older members who live alone, as connecting with adult children, grandchildren and friends and family members might be more difficult without a seamless system.
This is the thought behind bloom, a technology system that allows families and friends to connect with one another across a couple different devices that are easy to use and require little direction. Bloom uses a few components to share videos, calls and photos for older adults.
The system does not require a password, and seniors can view their content from loved ones simply by wearing a bloomband around their wrist, which activates a tablet screen as the wearer approaches it. Family members can send videos and photos through the bloom app via their smartphones at any time, which seniors can watch on their device at home.
“The gap between my children and my father was growing all the time, so we looked at bloom and found how three different groups could be connected with technology that wasn’t an obstacle,” says Keith Kocho, co-founder and CEO of Orbit HCI and the maker of bloom. “It needed to be seamless and magical. And it couldn’t be designed down for seniors. People often think seniors aren’t sophisticated enough for tech and that’s the wrong approach.”
Keeping people connected is easier than ever thanks to advances in technology, and bloom allows many people to share together from anywhere, without the hassle of using multiple platforms. Simplifying the process has great implications for communication, but it can also have a more serious impact among certain populations of seniors and in senior living communities, says Kocho.
“We want to explore the effect on cognitive decline and mood,” he says. “What happens in the day to [seniors] when they are exposed to memories and media from their past or live connection from family members who can converse with bloom? Caregivers and staff can actually help participate in the storytelling and capture what is going on in the memory care world.”
While bloom has immediate ramifications for improving communication, the system could also be used to collect key data points that can monitor a person’s health, which could lower the risk of more serious health concerns later.
Written by Amy Baxter and John Yedinak