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How big tech is intersecting with care for older adults

Free web talk to feature CU professor and clinician Dr. Cathy Bodine, PhD

By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Renew Senior Communities
Dr. Cathy Bodine, a clinician and associate professor in the school of medicine and college of engineering at the University of Colorado.
Dr. Cathy Bodine, a clinician and associate professor in the school of medicine and college of engineering at the University of Colorado.

Since the days before cell phones were even a thing, Dr. Cathy Bodine has been working to improve technology for people with disabilities or people aging into disabilities. 

Bodine, a clinician and associate professor in the school of medicine and college of engineering at the University of Colorado, wants to reduce social isolation — a goal she had long before COVID-19. 

“Social isolation leads to death just as much as cardiovascular disease,” she said. 

Bodine is the featured speaker and co-host in a free web talk on July 15, “How big tech is intersecting with care for older adults,” presented by Renew Senior Communities and co-hosted by Renew CEO Lee Tuchfarber. Here’s a look at some of the topics that will be explored. 

Many seniors are eager to learn new technology

There’s a common myth that seniors aren’t interested in technology, but Bodine said disinterest is usually the result of a more complex problem. 

“The technology doesn’t always meet their needs,” she said. “Seniors love technology, that’s not the problem — it’s the usability, user experience and their own history that interferes.”

Through her research and development of new technologies, she consistently finds that the key to making technology successful for seniors is how intuitive and useful it is. If the benefit of using a technology outweighs the cost of using — cost as in the learning curve, which can be frustrating — seniors will persist, she said. 

Bodine points toward the transparency of application icons as an example. Those who started using technologies that featured these icons from a young age understand that the button with the circle and line through it is the on/off button. But it’s not intuitive for all users. 

Free online talk on technology and aging

What: Renew Senior Communities webcast, “How big tech is intersecting with care for older adults.”

Who: Co-hosted by Cathy Bodine, clinician and associate professor in the school of medicine and college of engineering at the University of Colorado; and Lee Tuchfarber, CEO of Renew Senior Communities

When: July 15, 3 to 4 p.m.

Where: Online. Register at renewsenior.com.

“There are a lot of things that make technology really challenging and increase the cognitive load of being able to learn,” Bodine said. 

The pandemic has revealed this exact challenge — telehealth visits are simple for those who know how to log onto a video conferencing meeting, but it’s not easy for someone who has never used that type of application. 

Renew is experimenting with different communication devices to remove the challenges inherent in older adults holding a video conversation with their adult children, Tuchfarber said. 

“We have noticed that even an iPad can pose challenges for an older adult who is not accustomed to using one — it requires a staff member to operate a device for the resident in order to enable the video conference,” he said. 

Renew has looked at other devices and recognized that the Echo Show 8, for example, has a “drop in” feature that allows an adult child to simply appear on the screen at a scheduled time. In other words, the older adult resident does not have to know how to operate the device. 

“They can simply pick it up and start talking with their children and grandchildren,” Tuchfarber said. “Removing this barrier means that we can reconnect families easily.”

User-centered design

The average age of software engineers around the world tends to be under 35, Bodine said. While they have brilliant intentions and want to design good products, their own personal experiences influence their work. 

“If these engineers have no access to the end users, they’re building a product based on their knowledge rather than the knowledge of their average user,” she said. “Technology has to be developed with the end user in mind, in a way that’s more intuitive.”

Lee Tuchfarber, CEO of Renew Senior Living.
Lee Tuchfarber, CEO of Renew Senior Living.

Every semester, Bodine has her engineering students work with either a senior or someone with a disability to figure out what the real user problem is with a specific technology. Once students have a better understanding of the problem that needs to be solved, they can design technology around that issue. 

“Think about the lifespan of someone who is 85 years old. Think about the innovations they’ve experienced in their lifetime — automatic transmissions, a man on the moon, development of the computer, cell phones,” Bodine said. “They have a history of seeing lots of technological growth and development, but what we’re not doing so well today is designing the technology for them to be able to use it.”

Bodine goes to the massive Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas each year to meet with people from small and large companies around the world. Her hope is to train the next generation of engineers to be more adept at thinking more broadly about technology design. 

“They’re developing technologies that seniors will buy — the market is driving innovations in how we design and develop these technologies,” she said. 

Emerging technologies

Because of the demographic that is currently aging — Baby Boomers, the second-largest living generation behind Millennials — mainstream technology companies are increasingly interested in aging. Bodine said they’re starting to understand that their business models have to shift to include older populations. 

From artificial intelligence to smart-home designs, there are cutting edge technologies that can not only help seniors with social isolation, but also with mental and physical health. One technology Bodine is studying is the use of wearable sensors that can detect respiratory function, heart rate, temperature and other metrics. Sensors in a toilet can detect if someone has an infection. Bodine is particularly excited about wearable sensors’ ability to detect balance. 

“One of the key indicators for mortality and morbidity is falling. Our balance changes as we age. If we can measure when the balance stability is shifting, then maybe we can get you into physical therapy or senior exercise programs,” she said. “It’s a very exciting time to be working in technology.”


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