Tech to help care for aging family members, at home and from afar

From virtual reality simulations to furry robot pets, families are finding new ways to connect with and care for their aging loved ones.

By Sally Abrahms — February 9, 2021

Katie Engler of Woodbury, Minnesota, was on her way to the doctor with her mother, who has macular degeneration, when she realized that sometimes her mom could read the license plate of the car in front of them, but not always.  

It made more sense when Family Means, a nonprofit that helps family caregivers, introduced Engler to virtual reality (VR) at their office. Through a VR headset, she experienced the world from her mother’s point of view. For example, when Engler “attended” a virtual birthday party, the middle of her field of vision was completely blurry.

“Now I better understand what my mother faces every day,” she says.

According to a recent AARP report, about 17% of American adults care for a family member over the age of 50, and nearly one-third of adults age 60 and older live alone. Whether family caregivers like Engler live with their aging loved ones or help manage their care from afar, many have little support or experience — not to mention responsibilities to their own spouses and children. 

Today, one in four family caregivers is a millennial, and this “second job” will only become more common. Between 2010 and 2020, the baby boomer generation passed the age of 65, increasing the size of the 65- to 75-year-old age group by half, and by the end of this decade, the population of US adults over age 65 will increase by more than 20%, to 73.1 million.  

Virtual reality can promote empathy and strengthen relationships between caregivers and aging adults by offering a shared experience.

Virginia Gabrielli

Virtual reality can promote empathy and strengthen relationships between caregivers and aging adults by offering a shared experience.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has exacerbated challenges for caregivers and older adults who live alone — from social isolation to monitoring their health and safety. At the same time, COVID has also accelerated the adoption of home technology to address these issues. In one survey, 61% of seniors said they’ve embraced technology more during the pandemic.

Caregivers are using apps, tablets, and computers to stay connected, coordinate care, order deliveries, and consult with doctors. And new advances in VR, robotics, wearable tech, and smart-home solutions are improving the day-to-day experience of both aging adults and the people who love and care for them.

“The pandemic has created an urgency for the adoption of technology across all senior-related sectors,” says Laurie Orlov, founder of marketing research firm Aging and Health Technology Watch. “Worried family caregivers see technology as a lifesaver.”

Using VR to understand and explore

The emotional toll of watching an aging family member decline can be devastating. How can you give someone the support and care they need if you don’t understand what their life is like?

Embodied Labs, the company that created Engler’s immersive, 3D learning “lab” on macular degeneration, brings family and professional caregivers into the virtual world of aging adults with immersive experiences that simulate dementia, Parkinson’s, hearing loss, and more, through VR headsets like the HP Reverb. There’s a module on LGBTQ+ senior experiences, and the latest, unveiled during the pandemic, addresses social isolation.

“Decades of research on virtual reality training has shown that humans create memories as though they are living these experiences in real life,” says Carrie Shaw, founder and CEO of Embodied Labs. “This leads to deeper emotional connection, faster learning, and longer retention.”

To help family members create new experiences together, MyndVR’s VR solution uses Bluetooth, a VR headset for the older adult, and a companion tablet for the caregiver, to let family members travel or attend events together without leaving home.

Bonnie Gleason, 91, lives alone in Leawood, Kansas, and uses a walker. But that hasn’t stopped her and her daughter, Ruth Waggoner, from parasailing, skydiving, and traveling to San Francisco together in VR. “When someone is isolated, there may be limited things to talk about,” says Waggoner. “VR is really cool because Mom and I never run out of conversation.”

Easing loneliness with robot companions

When people get older, their social circles often shrink. They may have mobility issues, friends who’ve moved or passed away, or family that isn’t nearby. A June 2020 poll conducted for the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation found that in the first few months of the pandemic, 56% of people age 50 and over in   the United States said they sometimes or often felt isolated, up from 27% in 2018.  

Companion and social robots are helping older adults fill this void, decreasing anxiety and loneliness, while providing peace of mind to family caregivers who can’t be with them. For example, Joy for All Companion Pets has a line of furry, lifelike robotic dogs and cats, with a calming heartbeat and the ability to move, roll over, bark or purr, and respond to touch, motion, or voice.

“Worried family caregivers see technology as a lifesaver.”

— Laurie Orlov, founder, Aging and Health Technology Watch

Intuition Robotics is currently testing ElliQ, a chatty social robot billed as “the sidekick to happier aging.” ElliQ is like a virtual assistant combined with a small tablet, both of which perch on a charging base that can sit on a table or desk.

“Digital companions help aging family members feel acknowledged and form a routine on their own,” says Dor Skuler, cofounder of Intuition Robotics. “They can amplify the work of the caregiver during a time when they aren’t able to be around as frequently.”

Care seniors can wear

Every year, one out of four US seniors falls, while every 19 minutes an older adult dies from a fall. For people with dementia, the potential to wander off and become disoriented creates an additional concern.

For family caregivers who can’t be with their loved ones 24/7, wearable devices such as smartwatches with fall detection, sensors in shirts that record biometric data, and activity trackers can provide assurance that their family members are healthy and safe. For example, the new Apple Watch Series 6 can measure blood oxygen levels, take an electrocardiogram, and alert family members if it suspects its wearer has fallen. 

Tech for eldercare during social distancing and stay at home orders.

Virginia Gabrielli

Wearable tech can offer caregivers peace of mind while ensuring safety and wellbeing for aging adults.

The voice-controlled Kanega Watch was specifically created for older adults. If it thinks they’ve fallen, it buzzes and flashes an emergency message. If they don’t respond, it connects to a call center. It can also be programmed for medication reminders.

Garnet Persinger, 80, of Pittsboro, North Carolina, wears her Kanega Watch all the time. “If you live alone, you need to have an easy way to get help,” she says. 

For family members with Alzheimer’s, the GPS SmartSole can notify caregivers if someone has wandered or gotten lost. The insert is placed in a senior’s shoe and tracks their location, notifying family members via text or email if the person goes beyond set perimeters.

Smart devices that help carers from afar

A 2018 AARP survey found that three out of four people age 50 and older want to stay in their homes and communities as they age. Smart-home technology, with devices powered by voice control, artificial intelligence (AI), and smart sensors, are making it safer to age at home, while keeping caregivers informed. “Technology is getting better, easier to use, cheaper, and much better tailored to the needs of older adults and their caregivers,” says Majd Alwan, senior vice president of technology and business strategy for LeadingAge, an association of nonprofit providers of aging services. 

The new care app Briocare, with voice control via Amazon’s Alexa, is geared to seniors aging alone. Along with curated content, video chats, and photo sharing, they get disease-specific tips, spoken medication reminders and refill alerts, and can tell their smart speaker if there’s an emergency. Through a mobile app, a family member can program reminders for appointments, medication, and daily routines, or personal messages in their own voices. 

Smart, connected home devices including thermostats, light bulbs, and faucets can be controlled via voice command or mobile app. A smart smoke and carbon monoxide detector will not only notify an older adult by voice or alarm, but also send smartphone alerts to caregivers and can even connect with other smart devices to unlock doors or turn on lights. And, home sensors placed around the house can alert family caregivers to a health issue. For example, if a sensor in the refrigerator hasn’t been triggered all day, it could be a sign that a parent hasn’t eaten or isn’t feeling well. New devices in development can even use AI to predict a potential fall, helping seniors prevent a dangerous situation before it happens and giving family critical information to determine what kind of care is needed most.

“[Tech like this] will revolutionize how we age, deliver, and receive aging services in the future,” says Alwan.


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