A few years ago, when her mother turned 80, Jean Anne Booth decided it was time for an emergency alert device that could let her know if her mom needed help. The trouble was, her fiercely independent, aging parent would have nothing to do with the usual gadgets, fearing they would brand her as feeble. “They were ugly and socially stigmatizing,” says Booth. Plus, her mother didn’t have a smart phone, which meant any device she used would be limited to monitoring her at home.
Booth, a serial tech entrepreneur, recognized a business opportunity when she saw one. Couldn’t she develop a wearable device with sensors that could detect problems wherever the wearer might be, alert the appropriate people, and look good, too?
In 2013, she launched an Austin-based company to sell Unaliwear, a wearable technology that looks like a watch and is able to detect, say, rapid acceleration indicating a possible fall, trigger the system to ask whether the wearer might need help and then contact a family member, caregiver, or 911. The product should be on the market next year, according to Booth, who calls the device “a wearable OnStar for elderly people,” referring to the in-vehicle car security system.
Like any product, wearables are particularly appealing when they have a clear and immediate benefit. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a growing number of devices that help the elderly remain independent and family/caregivers keep track of what's happening. From 2011 to 2017, home monitoring will almost double its share of the wearable wireless device health market, to 22% up from 12%, according to market research firm ABI Research. Other wearables for the elderly are aimed at such uses as helping to cope with medical conditions.
Monitoring and Tracking Patterns with Smart Sensors
Certainly, one hot area is wearables which allow people to monitor an elderly individual’s situation without being overly intrusive. But some go further, attempting to track and record patterns so family members can step in before a problem becomes bigger. Case in point: CarePredict. Co-founded by tech industry veteran Satish Movva, its product, CarePredict Temp, focuses on safety in the home. Worn on the wrist, it combines motion and location sensors to detect behavior. The software then figures out what the activities are and transmits data wirelessly through a hub to be analyzed on the company’s servers.
Most important, during the first week, it learns what the person’s normal activity patterns are and sends an alert via text message, email, or an app, to be introduced soon, if it senses a change. Lying down in the living room one afternoon might indicate a nap, but spending the whole weekend in bed could mean something more serious and require follow-up.
Smart Technology and Artificial Intelligence
Similarly, Unaliwear has artificial intelligence capabilities that learn the wearer’s lifestyle and determine when something out of the ordinary happens. If someone takes an unusual route, the system can ask whether the person needs directions. Should the individual head the wrong way, a medical operator can be alerted.
Communicating with Wearables: Talking by Touch
Smartstones takes another approach—providing a way to stay in touch by, basically, creating a nonverbal language. Also targeting parents of young children, the Santa Barbara, CA, startup was founded by user design experience expert Andreas Forsland in 2013 after his mother spent a long hospital stay hooked up to a ventilator, unable to communicate except by touch. Both caregiver and senior wear what looks like a stone, which houses sensors able to detect vibrations, light and sound. They decide what certain movements mean—one touch might communicate the person needs help or has arrived at a destination, for example. Then, when an individual makes that gesture, it’s sent via Bluetooth or cellular network through the cloud and communicated to the other wearer’s device.
Learning to Walk Again with Wearables
Of course, monitoring isn’t the only use for elderly-focused wearables. Take WalkJoy, a wearable aimed at helping people with neuropathy who have trouble maintaining balance and walking. The Long Beach, CA-based company’s co-founders began developing the product five years ago; they started selling it at the end of last year, after getting FDA approval.
How it works: Individuals who suffer from the nerve problem—most of whom are older—lose feeling in their feet and sometimes calves and knees and, as a result, find it difficult to determine where their foot is in space, leading to frequent falls. The device, which fits right below the knee with a Velcro strap, contains a variety of sensors able to detect velocity and the angle of the foot. With that data, the system fires on the heel as it strikes the ground, causing the motor system to revive and sending appropriate messages to the brain.
The result: The wearer can walk.
At night, users remove the device. “It’s like taking off a pair of glasses,” says co-founder Blain Tomlinson.