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 Can High-Tech Foster High-Touch?

Thanks to a variety of technology solutions and innovations, there is potential for older adults in any setting to connect with family, friends, and others. From social media platforms and video-conferencing solutions from Skype and Zoom, to voice-assistive technology and movement-tracking devices, there are ways to keep people engaged and active with friends, family, practitioners, and others who may be six blocks or 600 miles away. But while all of these innovations are promising, don’t think of them as a panacea.

“Technology such as Skype can be very powerful and helpful to keep people connected when geography is a barrier,” says geriatrician Michael Wasserman, MD, CMD. However, he adds, “They aren’t a substitute for face-to-face interactions and the ability to touch or hug someone who is right in front of you.”

Esmerelda Lee, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Century Park, an affiliate of Life Care Centers of America, says, “Technology is helpful and extremely practical in some situations, such as when a person is living independently, and the family can’t be there 24/7.” At the same time, she observes, “We have to be careful about residents’ right to privacy. We need to use technology on a person-by-person basis and make sure we consider the whole person.”

While not all technology will be useful for every person, there are some interesting resources out there. Among them:
  • The GeriJoy Companion, which uses a special table, a remote team of human caregivers, and computer intelligence systems to provide personalized, around-the-clock emotional support and real social interactions.
  • Proactive cognitive artificial intelligence from Intuition Robotics that helps older adults stay in touch with family and friends, pursue healthy behaviors, and connect with the outside world.
  • Voice assistants. The ability to make calls, seek information, listen to music, and more without a keyboard can help engage older people, especially those with vision or mobility problems. However, there are some limitations and disadvantages to this technology. For instance, the cost could be prohibitive for people on limited incomes, and there are some privacy/security concerns.
  • Robotic pets that enable people to interact with them just as they would a live pet.
  • A variety of platforms and devices that monitor movement, track activity, and send alerts when a change in patterns or habits is detected.
  • Behavioral analytics, employed via wristbands, electronic badges, and other devices, can measure vital signs, detect speech pattern changes, and/or track sleep disruptions. These can help identify when an individual is feeling depressed or anxious.
Social media helps people stay connected, but—like most technology—it’s not right for everyone. According to the Pew Research Center, only 37 percent of older adults use one or more social media platforms.

However, among those over age 65, Facebook is by far the most popular social media site. Particularly for those individuals who are bedbound or otherwise unable or unwilling to leave their home, social media is a useful way for them to stay connected and engaged.

“We have to use technology as appropriate to meet people where they are,” says AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson. Clearly, there is tremendous opportunity for technology to engage people socially; connect them with friends, family, and others; and keep them connected over time. However, it is not the whole solution but only a supplementary tool, she says.

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