As someone working in the elder care field for 23 years, I’ve always understood the term “preventative care” as having something to do with the medical field such as getting an annual flu shot or visiting the doctor for a yearly checkup. I suppose preventative care could also refer to doing something to prevent a medical crisis like put up grab bars in the bathroom or improve lighting in dark hallways. But today, in this fast-moving technological world we live in, elder care has moved into the 21st century and more and more is harnessing technology to help seniors age safely in their homes.

In the recent past, technology has been marketed to seniors as a tool to provide such things as medication reminders, fall detectors, and personal response systems. These systems are set up specifically to monitor health and alert others to safety issues. This technology has played a valuable role in helping older adults age safely at home, but now technology, through the advent of “smart homes,” can offer so much more. And none too soon.  Baby boomers are getting older and it is anticipated that the market for such technology will only increase.

A May 30, 2017, article in the Seattle Times, Creating safer, smarter homes for seniors, looked at how “Smart homes outfitted with sensors could allow older adults to maintain independence for as long as possible.” The article describes the work of University of WA Professor George Demiris who “turned to common household devices such as video cameras, digital thermometers, and door, window and motion sensors to…turn an average house into a smart home. The devices catch deviations from a daily routine that the person may not notice, but which can often mean something more serious over a period of time.”

The National Institute on Aging is also conducting a study on the use of sensors and other technologies to monitor and provide insight into the health status of a senior. The NIH study is looking at using “in-home activity sensors and other technologies to detect changes in key health and independence related activities, such as sleep, mobility, body composition, and driving.”

It’s an interesting concept that by monitoring common measures of the home environment and its inhabitants, such as temperature, humidity, and movement, data can be compiled that can, over time, identify areas of risk for seniors. The need for this is huge. According to the US Census Bureau, on July 1, 2017, the number of people age 65 and older in the United States numbered 47.8 million. By 2060 this group will top 98.2 million and account for almost 25 percent of the total population. Of this number, 19.7 million will be age 85 or older.  Even if caregiving became the most popular of career choices, there still wouldn’t be enough younger people to care for the elderly.

Innovations such as those being researched by Dr. Demiris and the NIH are critical to establishing new models of care for our seniors. “Crucial to enabling their independence is preventative health care – and the ability to detect health issues quickly. If someone opens the refrigerator several times in the course of an hour, or if they’re becoming more sedentary, these could be early indicators of a specific condition,” Demiris says.  “We have these incredible technologies that, when put together, can help us better understand our daily lives and needs. I believe that technology can empower more people, especially older adults and their families, to become actively involved in their own health care.”