Tom Neumann remembers the transformation.
He was at a nursing home in Norwalk, Connecticut, last year, demoing a virtual reality platform he co-founded called Rendever. Mickey, an older woman who suffers from dementia and hadn't talked much or smiled in weeks, gave it a try. She put on the Oculus headset and was virtually transported to a room full of puppies.
Mickey instantly lit up. She smiled and called out to the puppies and sent them kisses. Neumann recalled that she reached out as if to pet them, making her caregiver tear up.
"This is absolutely unbelievable," Mickey said as she looked around in awe, a smile plastered to her face. "I can almost feel them."
Seniors may not be the first demographic that comes to mind when you think of VR. The technology, which uses a headset to trick the eyes and brain into thinking you're in a virtual location, has commonly been used for gaming. But it's hoped that VR, along with other tech like artificial intelligence, robots and motion sensors, can help seniors feel less isolated and, in some cases, live independently for longer. Several of these technologies were on display last week at CES, the mega tech show held in Las Vegas.
Innovations geared toward older audiences could prove to be helpful for aging Baby Boomers, the last of whom will turn 65 by 2030, according to the Institute on Aging. By then, older Americans will make up 20 percent of the population. Add to this the fact that, according to AARP, nearly 90 percent of adults age 65 and up want to stay in their current home and community as they age, and it's no surprise companies are catering to this older demographic.
"When it comes to innovation, it's easy to chase the 'early adopter' market -- those who rush to buy the latest gadget and who tend to be younger, more affluent adults," says Forrester analyst Jennifer Wise. But as companies realize there's demand from older audiences for many emerging technologies, they're more likely to pay attention to those groups.
A virtual escape
For some aging adults, especially those in nursing homes, VR platforms like Rendever could help address isolation, lack of mobility and depression, says Neumann, who also serves as Rendever's chief technology officer. Using an Oculus Go headset and a Samsung Galaxy Tab A10, patients and caregivers can choose nearly any location in the world -- say, Machu Picchu, someone's childhood home or the top of the Eiffel Tower -- and take a virtual visit.
"When someone moves into a [senior] community, often their world shrinks," Neumann says. "They can't return to the places that are important to them. They may not be able to do the things they love or be there for important moments in the lives of people they care about. With VR, we can open up the world again."
Multiple VR headsets can be synchronized so that a group of people can go on a virtual journey together. The platform can also be used for more personal experiences. If someone can't make it to a granddaughter's wedding in the Dominican Republic, for example, a relative could use a VR camera from the company to film the event and upload it to Rendever's web portal for viewing through a headset.
Rendever is geared toward senior living communities, but the company worked with AARP to develop a consumer-facing platform called Alcove, which launched during CES. Alcove also lets users virtually travel almost anywhere in the world, in addition to letting multiple people watch videos and play games together. The app is available for early access on Oculus Go.
Taking medications can be a challenge for many older adults. Around half of the prescriptions filled in the US each year are taken incorrectly, especially in regard to timing, dosage, frequency and duration, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A small white countertop device with a round face and blinking blue eyes, called Pillo, may be able to help.
Pillo, which was on display at CES, serves as both an automated pill dispenser and a voice-activated home health companion. When it's time for someone to take their meds, Pillo will alert them with a ping and then use face detection to make sure they're the right person before dispensing the pills. (Alternatively, people can type in a PIN code on the touchscreen device.) Patients can also indicate by tapping on the screen whether they'll accept the medication or want to postpone taking their meds for, say, an hour.
If a patient misses a dose, Pillo will notify a caregiver or family member through an accompanying app, free on Android and iOS, so they can check in via video call. Caregivers can also set up push notifications to let them know if the device has been unplugged.
Medication is stored in a wheel that pops into the back of the device. The wheel is split into different compartments for each dose, and can hold up to 28 days' worth of medicines (or about 300 pills). Patients and caregivers can reload Pillo using an opening at the top of the device.
Pillo also serves as a smart speaker. Users can tell Pillo to set an alarm, ask about the weather or inquire about the number of calories in an apple. The company has a partnership with Microsoft and uses the tech giant's technology to power Pillo's search engine. Patients can also ask when their next dose is, if they've already taken their meds or how many pills are left in the device.
People have asked Pillo questions like, "Did you dream last night?" or "What color are your eyes?" says product manager Paige Baeder.
"It makes you realize that people feel alone, and they need a device because they don't have a human around them," Baeder says.
Pillo sells for $499, plus a $40 monthly subscription fee. That fee is waived for the first 12 months for customers who purchase Pillo this year.
The company has been selling the product directly to consumers through its website, but its goal is to focus on selling to payers, providers and hospital systems. The company white-labeled Pillo with Black & Decker, which renamed the product "Pria." Black & Decker plans to start selling Pria in retail locations such as CVS, Walmart and Amazon sometime around March.
In-home cameras are one way to monitor senior citizens living independently, but recording their every move can be invasive. One company offering an alternative option is Sensorscall, which developed an AI device that plugs in to a wall outlet to monitor movement, activity levels and air quality.
The device, called CareAlert, uses sensors to measure activity and is designed to learn people's daily patterns, such as when they go to bed and how often they get up at night. The device will ping caregivers if there're any irregularities, like if someone gets up several times in the middle of the night or spends more time than usual in the bathroom. Those alerts can be sent through an accompanying app or via text.
CareAlert, which was shown off at CES, also has a sound sensor that won't recognize voices but can identify sounds like flushing, turning on the shower, or opening and closing a door. If someone isn't flushing enough, for example, that could mean they aren't drinking enough fluids and may be dehydrated. If the device hears a thud and there's no motion for about five minutes, it'll alert a caregiver about a potential fall.
Caregivers can use the CareAlert device as a two-way speaker to check whether someone is OK. They can also record voice reminders for a person to take medications and schedule those to play through the device at certain times during the day.
CareAlert will be available to beta customers in February for $99 per device. The company recommends users install at least three devices per home in high-traffic areas like the bathroom, kitchen and bedroom. There will also be a yearly subscription of around $149 to cover software updates. The subscription is free for the first year.
UK smart home company Centrica Hive rolled out a similar system called Hive Link in the UK last month, with plans to bring it to market in the US later this year. The company displayed the system at CES.
Hive Link uses sensors backed by AI algorithms that learn someone's daily patterns and routines. Caregivers can check a person's activity log on the Hive app. If anything out of the ordinary happens -- say, mom doesn't wake up at her usual time of 8 a.m. -- the caregiver will get a push notification, email or text.
Hive Link uses a combination of motion sensors, window and door sensors, and smart plugs installed on regularly used appliances like coffee makers or TVs. Together, these products can indicate whether someone has been up and about as usual based on their activity and movement -- for example, if they've made their morning coffee or opened the fridge recently. As with CareAlert, there are no cameras involved. In the UK, Hive Link costs £149, in addition to a £15 monthly fee. US pricing hasn't yet been determined.
"It's a very difficult conversation to have with mom, [to say]: 'I want to put some things inside your home so we can make sure you're alright,'" says John Gutch, global product lead for Centrica Hive. "The key part of that is making it noninvasive."
The goal of these innovations is to make people's lives simpler and more enjoyable -- whether through medicating properly or monitoring, or by simply bringing a smile to someone's face with VR.
"Seniors can stay independent longer than previous generations thanks to many new products that help keep them safe, healthy and active," says Karen Panetta, IEEE fellow and dean of graduate education for the Tufts University School of Engineering. "As this tech-savvy generation ages, they'll expect more high tech to assist them and their aging parents in every aspect of their daily routines."
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