The U.S. population is getting older. Today, there are roughly 50 million Americans over the age of 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and that number will rise sharply over the next decade. By 2030, the Census estimates there will be 78 million Americans over the age of 65 – that means one in every five residents of the U.S. population will be retirement age.
And those Americans will live longer, thanks to advances in medical science, nutrition and living conditions. Research from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies shows that at the end of this decade, households headed by 80-year-olds and older will make up more than one-in-10 U.S. households. By 2038, 12 percent of all households will be headed by someone 80 or older.
A rapidly aging population comes with high costs and a looming healthcare provider shortage. Nearly a third of all doctors today will turn 65 in the next decade, too, and start aging out of the workforce in the next decade. Experts project that the U.S. will see a shortage of 46,900 to 121,900 physicians by 2032 in primary and specialty care.
That fundamental mismatch between an aging population and the current capacity for care in existing health systems has driven a host of smart products to the market, aimed at leveraging an increasingly connected world to meet the rising demand for healthcare services among seniors.
The size and scope of those efforts vary quite widely.
Some are narrower and usually focused on a wearable of some sort. CarePredict, for example, offers something seniors can wear that gathers data on their daily activities like walking, sleeping and eat — and then share that data with designated family or caregivers. Additionally, CarePredict uses proprietary artificial intelligence (AI) to scan the data and send alerts before warning signs like decreased appetite or sleep escalate into serious medical conditions.
A technological level up from those efforts is a product by Japanese startup Xenoma, which recently introduced the world to its “e-skin” pajamas designed for the elderly. With sensors embedded in the pajamas, they look and feel normal, but quietly analyze vitals and detect issues while the wearer sleeps.
But there are also firms thinking more expansively than a single product that looks to connect a consumer via what they are wearing. There is also the small group of players taking on the house as a whole as the next frontier in connectivity for seniors. Millennial early adopters may get the majority of the attention when it comes to the development of smart home technology, but if one is looking at the demographic where it could very well ignite in the next decade, it could very easily be older consumers. Because, as smart home startup Cherry Home CEO and Co-founder Max Goncharov told Karen Webster last year: that is where the need is most quickly building up.
“And I say this from personal experience,” Goncharov told Webster. “My parents are in their 70s and live on the other side of the planet. I can call them, but I don’t find out enough — and setting up video cameras in their home would be a little intrusive.”
So as an alternative to remotely surveilling his parents, instead, the firm developed the Cherry Home device — a smart device equipped with computer-visioning technology, designed to monitor older users’ in-home behavior. The tech sends notifications whenever normal patterns change, or if there’s a dangerous event, such as a fall or significant stumble to family members and other authorized receivers.
Out of concern for privacy, images are not photo-realistic renderings of the users presented in full, bright technicolor, but skeletal overlays of a human-based image that make clear what is happening in the image without using a rendering of the person. The theory, he said, is that lowering the cost of caregiving can be achieved by separating what physically needs to be done by an aid for a senior in terms of services, and what are monitoring and reminder services that can be handled by a passive system.
A system, he noted, requires almost nothing of its users, but allows them to remain more independent.
“I think seniors will care less about the how's and logistics behind the technology, and pay a lot more attention to how they are staying healthy and enjoying living their lives,” he said.
And they are continuing to live their lives independently. An interesting divergence in data appears when one asks caregivers for senior citizens about their main priorities and concerns and when one asks the seniors directly. A survey by the Consumer Technology Association of seniors and caregivers found that while both groups were quite concerned with activities like remembering to take medication at scheduled times, with two-thirds or more of each group noting each as their leading concern when it came to the use of connected technology — the second spot diverged widely. Caregivers were far more concerned with preventing and responding to accidents, things like sudden falls or leaving the stove on with 60 percent reporting a concern; while 61 percent of seniors' second-leading interest was in maintaining a more independent lifestyle.
Building that bridge to fuller independence for seniors is one of the central goals of Japanese homebuilder Sekisui House's collaboration with MIT’s Institute of Medical Engineering and Science to develop and adapt Sekisui’s “Platform House” connected home model for U.S. populations.
The Platform House — set to debut in about 100 residences in Japan this year — makes use of embedded ambient technology within every part of the house from the floor to the ceiling. The goal of all the embedded tech is to monitor inhabitant health and behavior data quietly and then use that to the advantage of the tenant. The Platform House is the cornerstone of the building company's emerging home-as-a-service business model designed around making homes “platforms” from which consumers can more healthfully and easily interface with the world in relevant and useful ways.
Their efforts will start in health, and as the MIT professor working on the Platform Home project, Brian Anthony explained, that home-as-a-service concept turns the entire house into passive monitoring devices such that seniors and eventually all consumers can gain access to better health and connectivity without having to work hard to seek or use it.
“One of the biggest issues is compliance with any technology for medication, for sleep monitoring, for accessing appointments — for any of it — is actually getting seniors into wearing connected devices themselves,” Anthony said. “Here, you just have it in the environment; you don't have to worry about technology.”
Except, of course, the part where one has to worry about making the technology accessible in the market, which at this point is still some ways away as much of it is still in early development and piloting. How long before it is fully developed, in MIT's labs and elsewhere, and ready and affordable for mass consumption remains an open question.
It remains to be seen if America’s aging senior population will find the health benefits associated with a hyper-connected house scanning their movements and marking their sleep patterns a big enough bonus to push them toward a home that is monitoring them closely, down to their biometrics.
That remains a bit of a jump ball, as the incoming generation of seniors will, in many ways, be a very different group than their predecessors in being both tech-savvy and familiar with using smart connected devices to manage and enhance their lives. The CTA study reference above noted that 64 percent of seniors were willing to embrace some form of health monitoring via connected technology — though if that is at the wearable level, or the sensor-equipped, fully monitoring smart home level, is still an open question.
But it seems at least possible that as smart homes are beginning to hit their stride in the next decade alongside 25 million or so Americans who will be entering the over-65 demographic — it might just be that older Americans will drive quite a lot of what the connected future will focus on than anyone is currently giving them credit for.