For Part 2 of our “human assets” series last month, we examined a few computers specifically designed for the elderly: specialized Linux machines that offered a few simple web apps with large print and a simplified user interface. While these machines can be useful for certain users, the biggest challenge in introducing technology to a population that does not rely on it much — by no means a bad thing — is making integration seamless. Teaching someone how to operate something completely new can be met with resistance, especially when the new device seems forced upon the person in the first place.
Furthermore, the priorities of integrating technology into a senior’s life often differ between caregivers and the elderly. To a caregiver, it might make sense to monitor a person remotely through a combination of sensors: wireless blood pressure monitors, fall sensors, bed pressure sensors, scales, cameras. All of that can be monitored, but is it really worth turning Grandma into a cyborg to track that information? Maybe she’s more interested in keeping in touch with her family and receiving pictures. Accomplishing correspondence and medical goals means walking a fine line.
In my research for this column, Part 3 of our series, I found a new type of product that is a variant of smart TV designed precisely for that purpose, sold under the brand name Independa. Its description reads similarly to the Linux computers we examined last month: The TV allows an elderly person to Skype with family, share pictures, browse the web and more.
However, the product is presented in a package the user is already familiar with and likely spends many hours in front of each day: a television. The TV can also be programmed to give the user calendar reminders, such as when to take medication, and can be integrated with a number of wireless medical sensors throughout the home.
I spoke with Lynne Giacobbe, executive director of Kendal at Home, who has used Independa for a few years with her members. Kendal at Home is a nonprofit focused on providing “aging-in-place” care for seniors, allowing them to stay independent and in their own homes instead of nursing homes.
“Televisions are typically something that everybody’s pretty much familiar with,” she says. “The only thing they need to know how to do is use a television and a remote control.”
Giacobbe notes that the learning curve for teaching an elderly person to use a computer is much greater than for learning to use a TV. She says the most difficult thing in the whole process for learning to use Independa is teaching a person to switch the input when they want to use a DVD player.
She says her elderly clients are constantly seeking and stimulated by “connectivity to their loved ones in a fun way, in a way that provide meaningful connections.” Integrating smart TVs into her program provides that.
“I don’t think there’s a lot else out there in terms of social integration that we’ve come across,” Giacobbe says.
Asked if there is any resistance to the technology, especially considering the medical monitoring portion, Giacobbe says the devices are almost universally positively received by her clients. One can’t help but be reminded of the “Telescreens” in George Orwell’s “1984,” but Giacobbe insists that the familiar platform is not “seen like big brother” compared with similar types of integrated medical monitoring systems.
Giacobbe sees possibilities for this technology to get elderly people involved in communities they would otherwise not be a part of. She cites examples of book-club members unable to participate in group discussions because they cannot drive across town, or group fitness activities that could be performed over webcam. She anticipates that this sort of usage will become commonplace as these types of devices grow in popularity.
Putting aside the fact that the lines between TVs and computers are fuzzy today, it makes sense to integrate new technology into a person’s life in a form the person is comfortable with. Instead of taking time to stand up and walk over to a computer, a person can receive Skype notifications and medication reminders right in the middle of a favorite show. With the integrated medical monitoring feature, you can feel comfortable that when Mom or Dad ignores your status update, it’s not because she or he is in danger, but because the show is more interesting.
Written in collaboration with Dylan Evans, Reveal’s vice president of operations.