Augmentation technologies for older adults, in this context means technologies that can support older adults and augment their ability to perform tasks and live their lives as fully as they choose.

Previously, we had talked about advanced technologies applied to care services in the context of preventing harm. Here, we’re more focused on expansive technologies – those that expand the realm of possibilities for older adults. As before, this is not meant to be a comprehensive listing; in fact, some of these areas are more of a glimpse of what the future may hold. We’ll address technologies available for care services today in other articles.

Robotics

Separate from and complementary to AI, we see diverse possibilities for physical robot-human interactions. These include, for example, exoskeleton types of robots. Exoskeletons are really an example of wearables, even if they seem heftier by comparison with something like a Fitbit or a sensor patch. They may be powered or unpowered, soft or rigid.

Finally, after many years of R&D, these exoskeletons have become commercially available. Nonetheless, many are still more used in an industrial or construction or hospital setting. For example, they may assist factory or warehouse workers with tasks that are not ergonomically favorable. The military is also testing them. A few examples of companies making these kinds of exoskeletons include Esko Bionics (with part of the company focused on rehabilitation and another part focused on industrial settings), Sarcos, Lockheed Martin, and others.

Social engagement

For many older adults, the possibilities for having an active and enriching social life start to decline, as mental and/or physical health begin to diminish. At the same time, remaining socially engaged promotes physical and mental health.

Several of the categories of technologies we describe here directly or indirectly promote engagement. Beyond those, we also want to mention a couple of examples of companies that are making easy to interact with technology, thus lowering barriers for engagement: There are intuitive touchscreens (e.g., made by iN2L), and telepresence robotics that help seniors feel more connected with friends and family (e.g., made by OhmniLabs); Independa augments traditional caregiving by providing cloud-based solutions including a caregiver web application, telephony-based solutions, as well as solutions for social engagement and health, environmental and activity monitoring.

Send help: location based technologies

In a way, these “send help” technologies fit into the “prevent harm” category, but one aspect of them caused us to include them here – that one can confidently be out and about and know that, if backup is needed, one can call for help.

This is also a good example of crossover of technologies between the extreme sports population (who might, for example, use an InReach or similar personal locator beacon device enables them to call for help, while sending their current location) and older adults – who may find themselves in slightly less extreme environments but in similar situations of being “remote” and needing help. MobileHelp is one example of a company providing this type of technology.

Cognitive enhancement: brain training, drugs, you name it

Flint Rehab’s FitMi is an example of a home therapy tool that was designed to to help people with a neurologic injury improve their strength and dexterity. As with exoskeletons, we see in this brain training category more therapeutic tools to help people regain normal function after, say, a traumatic injury or medical event such as a stroke. The FitMi is one such example. It was offered at CES 2019 as a therapy tool. However, one can imagine similar offerings to support mental acuity in aging, other than rehabilitation following neurologic injury.

Most people’s brain enhancement drug of choice remains caffeine! Still, researchers are looking into other drugs that may further enhance cognitive abilities. One example is Modafinil, a drug originally approved to treat sleepiness due to narcolepsy and other indications. Here is some Wikipedia information on the drug.

Claims for the cognitive enhancement properties of supplements, meditation programs, and other approaches tend to be less scientifically rigorous than claims about drugs that have to go through the full FDA (or equivalent) regulatory process. A quick Internet search will yield many results – some of scientific value, others not so much. Caveat emptor.

From what we can tell, there are many areas of active research regarding how to enhance our brains’ abilities. As of today, exercise probably remains as one of the most effective cognitive enhancement tools. If that’s not your cup of tea (or coffee), then perhaps an exoskeleton might assist you? Maybe we should have put robotics in this cognitive enhancement category!

Communications / voice tech

Communications, of course, happens in two directions – sending and receiving. On the receiving end, hearing loss is common among older adults. Uncorrected, it tends to isolate and harm. Hearing technology has made substantial strides and we expect this market to go through a significant disruption.

Here are some examples that are currently available: ZVOX VoiceBuds® can be thought as non-prescription hearing aid type devices (thanks to a recent change in FDA rules, at least within the US). VoiceBuds use the latest digital technology to make speech more clear, by minimizing background sounds, while boosting voices.

Another example of a technologically advanced hearing aid is Oticon’s Opn, which has Bluetooth capability and is made for iOS devices, to stream audio directly into your hearing aids.

On the sending end of communications, more technologies are available that enable older adults – and most of the rest of us, really – to interact more effectively with devices, through improved voice recognition technologies and other UX improvements. These enhancements include the now almost ubiquitous (among computer and smartphone users, anyway) AI-based speech recognition systems such as those found in Siri, Alexa, etc.

Transportation – self-driving cars, anyone? Maybe not yet.

Historically, transportation options for older adults have been limited – and commercial methods of addressing this need have focused on offering ride services. In the last several years, with the hype around autonomous cars, we’ve also soon great expectations for self-driving vehicles tailored to the needs of older adults who may no longer be able to drive themselves. While the possibilities are enormous, the current state of technologies still limits the level of autonomy that is possible, resulting in a “self-driving” experience that in reality requires a high degree of monitoring.

People are righto be skeptical in the short term, although in the long term, we expect reality to start catching up to the current hype. Don’t expect this to be a realistic option in the next couple of years, however – it’s hard enough to make vehicles that are totally autonomous without human passengers in them (see for example our comments on trends in advanced drone technologies).

In the short term, we expect much more out of assistive technologies that continue to enhance situational awareness while driving – but that assumes there’s still a human driver handling the controls.

XR – virtual reality, mixed reality, augmented reality

It sounds like these technologies belong more in an article about gaming or, let’s call them “younger adults” as opposed to the older adults we’re focused on here.

Not so fast! While these XR technologies, like self-driving cars, are in the midst of a hype cycle, in the long-term we see outstanding benefits for seniors.

There are already direct links between XR and brain training or rehabilitation, and we expect to see a lot more research in healthcare dedicated to understanding how this exciting field can benefit seniors.

These are long-term R&D projects. With the inexorable demographic shifts currently underway, now is the time to invest in this kind of disruptive R&D.

In conclusion

Ultimately, adoption (or lack thereof) will determine whether or not older adults receive the benefits of any augmenting technologies applied to care services. Ease of use, non-intimidating features, and other factors play a big role here. Laurie Orlov has written an excellent article on this subject that is worth reading.

Please note that we do not have any direct relationship with any of the companies mentioned here, and we are not particularly endorsing any of their products; we simply describe them as being interesting examples within their respective categories.

Title photo by Gervyn Louis on Unsplash.