The potential uses of mobile health — applications on smartphones, tablets, wearables and other portable devices to help us better manage our health — can seem limitless. Today, we can track and parse our bodies in ways that were impossible for even the highest-end professional tools just a generation or two ago. From sleep quality to hydration, exercise strenuousness to glucose levels, just about any facet of health can be measured and analyzed.
But it’s not quite perfect. The most at-risk health populations are not always the ones that can benefit from these technological advances. In fact, one of our largest and highest-risk populations — senior citizens — is falling through the cracks.
Here, we’ll consider three sets of stats and then talk about what they mean.
First: There are a LOT of senior citizens.
Senior citizens make up a sizeable portion of the American population. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging, “People 65+ represented 14.1% of the population in the year 2013 but are expected to grow to be 21.7% of the population by 2040.”
Second: Seniors are getting connected, but they have a long way to go.
Technology use is increasing among seniors, but it’s still limited. According to the Pew Research Center, seniors’ adoption of the Internet echoes the curve for all adults. It’s happening just as quickly, but it remains far below the overall average. Today, fewer than two-thirds of Americans age 65+ go online, and only 18% have a smartphone (as many as own a tablet or e-reader).
As Pew points out, “Older adults face several unique barriers and challenges when it comes to adopting new technologies”:
- Physical challenges — Reading is difficult for 40% of older people surveyed.
- Skeptical attitudes— Of seniors who don’t use the Internet, 35% don’t believe they’re missing anything.
- Difficulty adapting— Fifty-six percent assessed themselves as needing help to learn to use a social network, while the number jumped to 77% for a smartphone or a tablet.
Third: Seniors need help with their healthcare expenses.
According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, seniors 65+ “made up around 13 percent of the U.S. population in 2002, but they consumed 36 percent of total U.S. personal health care expenses. … A much higher proportion of the elderly than the non-elderly have expensive chronic conditions.”
What can we do?
We talk a lot about unmet needs. Here’s a huge one: We have a large — and growing — population that’s responsible for a disproportionate amount of healthcare costs and that hasn’t been able to exploit the potential technology that could help it. Here are a few thoughts on how we can effect change where it’s most needed.
- Design practically — A wide variety of accessibility functions are already baked into smartphones, tablets and laptops to help users who have limited vision, hearing or fine motor skills. Keeping purpose and utility in mind and incorporating elements that resemble real-world counterparts (e.g., putting a realistic clock face on an Apple watch) can help seniors navigate the world of device screens.
- Think personally — Prescription reminders are great and so are symptom trackers, but what else can we do? How can we make an app more human? Consider a reminder app that a loved one could personalize so the user would be reminded not by a chime or a pop-up, but rather with their grandkids’ voices and pictures.
- Seek familiarity in long-standing design — Looking to pop culture through the decades can give us inspiration for layouts with which seniors will feel familiar and at home. Some parts of app design may not work for this population. For instance, a hamburger menu may not be an intuitive part of a layout, but a newspaper-style layout may be.
Our population, their chronic conditions and the associated spending are rising, and a senior healthcare crisis is looming. If we can figure out how to offer friendly, low-cost, easy-to-learn tools that can help seniors and their loved ones manage their health, we can address a large problem — and help improve people’s lives.