Many people engaged in elder care have a hard time associating digital technology with caring for an aging loved one. After all, elder care is a hands-on affair, requiring time and energy. But what if the family caregiver lives far away, or can’t be there every day, all the time? Could the newest wave of digital technology open the door to better elder care, acting as the missing link between aging loved ones and the caregivers who watch over them?
And what if the “elder” who needs regular care is you?
From time to time here on the Blog, we’ve written about this collision between the world of technology and the world of elder care. With technological frontiers changing so rapidly, we’re always on the lookout for technological news that family caregivers can actually use to provide better elder care. That’s why we found this recent article from NextAvenue so intriguing. As the author, George Lorenzo writes, the newest forms of digital technology are providing what he calls “valuable, real-time data to assist with healthy aging and geriatric care.”
If you’re experiencing your own health issues as you age, these new technologies might be just what you need. And if you’re a family caregiver who has been hesitant about using digital aids to provide better elder care for an aging loved one, maybe it’s time for another look.
As We Age, Elder Care Includes Self-Care
Around two years ago, says Lorenzo, his doctor prescribed a wearable continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) device, fully covered by Medicare. At the time, Lorenzo was 68 and had suffered from Type 2 diabetes for decades.
“My A1C (blood sugar level) at the time was pushing close to an unhealthy 9.0,” he writes. “I reduced my A1C to 7.1 in five months through intermittent fasting and continuous glucose monitoring. The CGM device gives me 24-hour real-time data on my glucose levels without having to finger-blood-stick for glucose readings nearly as much as I used to.”
The CGM system is made up of three elements, according to Lorenzo: “an applicator that I press onto my abdomen to apply a sensor patch via a button push, a transmitter that slips into the patch and a pocket-sized reader (or I can have readings sent to my smartphone).”
The prescription comes with three 10-day sensors. Each transmitter—a separate prescription—lasts for 90 days. And as an added benefit? Lorenzo no longer has to see his doctor for the recommended visits every three to six months. Instead, he now sees his doctor every 10-12 months.
Better Elder Care as “Wearables” Grow in Popularity
Lorenzo isn’t alone in his positive experience with CGMs. “According to recent medical research titled ‘Digital health for aging populations,’ published in Nature Medicine by the Department of Nanotechnology at the University of California San Diego on July 18, 2023,” he writes, “wearable glucose monitoring systems have ‘proven to be extremely useful for reducing risks of hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia.’”
In fact, says the paper’s co-author—professor Joseph Wang—CGMs are the most successful commercial wearable sensors currently available.
Elder Care Enhanced with Broad Range of Measurement
Wang explains in the paper that sensing technology comes in four primary categories, shared here verbatim from Lorenzo’s article:
- Wearable physical sensors. Measures physical signals such as basic vital signs, heart rate, ECG, respiration rate, body temperature, oxygen saturation or blood pressure.
- Wearable chemical sensors. Tracks the chemical composition of various biofluids, such as sweat, tears, saliva and interstitial fluid (the fluid that fills spaces between cells).
- Hybrid and multi-parameter sensing platforms. Simultaneously tracks chemical biomarkers and physical vital signs.
- Non-wearable sensors. These are based on smart home digital systems that monitor older adults’ behavior, posture and movement.
Elder Care: Sweat-Testing Wristbands Could Revolutionize Health Care
Have you ever considered what your sweat might be able to tell you about your health? With a wristband sweat sensor, you could find out!
Lorenzo explains, “As noted in a March 2022 academic paper headlined ‘Wearable microfluidic-based e-skin sweat sensors,’ by the Department of Chemistry, National Institute of Technology (NIT) in India, ‘sweat testing has been employed in diverse applications ranging from medical diagnosis of diabetes, cystic fibrosis, tuberculosis, blood pressure and autonomic neuropathy to evaluating fluid and electrolyte balance in athletes.’”
These are also called body-on-chip devices, and the NIT authors have said that while sweat testing is still fairly new technology, they theorize that these devices will “revolutionize the health care system on various fronts in developed and emerging nations. It will significantly reduce the health care system’s cost, improve life expectancy by fifteen to twenty years and reduce animal usage for clinical trial.”
Elder Care in the Future: Wearables that Provide Treatment
Scientists from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering have also been focusing on research surrounding wearables and sensing technology that actually treat various maladies. Along with an international team of scientists from institutions in Germany, London, and Mexico, study co-author Peter Nguyen predicts in a July 2022 report that wearables will one day be able to provide automated treatment.
“Smart bandages, for example, could allow for real-time monitoring of wound healing through pH measurement and, in the case of an infection, treatment by on-demand delivery of antibiotics or anti-inflammatory drugs,” the report’s authors note.
Lorenzo adds, “My small CGM will eventually be capable of automatically injecting me with measured insulin doses based on my glucose readings.”
Elder Care Benefits from Smartwatches That Measure Blood Pressure
According to Nguyen, the next step in the world of wearables—anywhere from one to five years away—is smartwatches that can take continuous blood pressure readings based on miniaturized ultrasound technology, doing away with those uncomfortable cuffs completely.
“These are really tiny micro skilled devices that can emit pulses of ultrasound right over your skin and actually detect your blood vessel enlarging and closing,” Nguyen says. “They can do this very complicated calculation that can estimate your blood pressure changing.”
Elder Care Could Employ Fabrics that Detect Disease
Can you imagine clothing that can detect illnesses? Nguyen and his colleagues can. Adding sensing technology to fabrics may still be about a decade away, but it’s an area being closely studied right now.
Lorenzo explains that during the pandemic, Nguyen and the Wyss team conducted research on the development of COVID-19 fabric masks that could be embedded with what’s known as “wearable freeze-dried cell-free technology (wFDCF),” also used in home pregnancy tests.
According to press on this research, the masks were “able to rapidly and accurately detect the presence of SARS-CoV2 viral RNA in a patient’s breath.”
This wearable diagnostic fabric technology all boils down to the use of DNA samples. The fabric acts as a catch-all for DNA and analyzes it, all in a short amount of time.
“Like a CGM device, users will get alerted when and if they’ve been infected with a virus,” Lorenzo writes. “Nguyen adds that the Wyss Institute has grown interested in further developing fabric-sensing technologies for detecting the flu and tuberculosis.”
Bureaucracy has slowed the process down, Nguyen admits, but the scientific desire is there even if the business side has yet to catch up.
Elder Care: Seniors with Neuropathy Helped by Vibrating Footwear
An increasingly popular piece of wearable technology is shoe insoles that vibrate, which is known to improve nerve function, balance, and irregular gait in older adults and people with foot neuropathy.
And speaking of older adults: Nguyen is passionate about encouraging seniors to give some of these new pieces of tech a try.
“One thing I would tell older adults is just to have an open mind regarding trying these things,” he says. “Know that some of these are new and might not be perfect [the numerous iterations of different smartwatches and accessories come to mind] – but try them out. You might find them to be beneficial.”
Professor Wang agrees, and his words close the article: “It’s never too late to go digital and take control of your health.”
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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)