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Technology helps seniors take control of their health

According to Statistics Canada, an estimated five million Canadians were 65 or older in 2011, a number that is expected to double in the next 25 years.

Iakov Filimonov

This is the ninth and final story in a series on the emerging wave of new-generation technology that monitors our health and wellness.

Randy Filinski might be of retirement age but he's no less wired than many people of younger generations.

"I use a Fitbit [fitness bracelet] that I wear daily to tell me how many steps I take, and to track my sleep patterns," says Filinski, a consumer health advocate and chair of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons' Ajax-Pickering chapter in suburban Toronto. "I believe it is a forerunner of things to come as technology becomes wearable with Bluetooth and wireless tracking."

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Technology use by seniors goes well beyond fitness monitors, though. Baby boomers in their retirement years and even the elderly are embracing computers, smartphones, tablets and other devices as they seek to better manage their own physical health – or even just keep their mental wits about them.

We might think of technology as the exclusive domain of youth, but many older Canadians refuse to be left behind.

"The days of unengaged seniors is in the past, or at least will be soon," says Christopher Frank, a physician and associate professor of medicine at Queen's University.

The trend is likely to accelerate as the population ages, if for no other reason than the senior demographic is expanding. According to Statistics Canada, an estimated five million Canadians were 65 or older in 2011, a number that is expected to double in the next 25 years. CARP notes that one in seven Canadians are 65 and over, nearly double of what it was three decades ago.

The range of health-related technology geared to seniors is vast.

Clifford Cancelosi, senior vice-president of technology for A Place for Mom, a Seattle-based company which helps families find senior care, notes the increase in health tracking tools, reminder apps and online databases. "These tools can be used by seniors themselves or by their caregivers," he states.

Wireless home monitoring can now detect emergencies, report unusual behaviours and even track vital signs from the comfort of home, while GPS technology and personal emergency response systems (PERS) can call for assistance at the push of a button.

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Filinski points out that older adults who embrace technology by using it extensively to communicate and do research can then move forward themselves. "Many are using the technology to communicate directly with their health-care providers for daily assessment and advice, and generally seem to have a healthier lifestyle. It is not the technology itself, but using it to be part of their health care or community."

He is also quick to note that there is another side to the continuum, though, where basic e-mail and computer skills are beyond the reach of some older adults who fall into isolation and are unable to recognize any health issues without physically visiting their physician or the emergency room. "They are reliant on family, friends or caregivers to recognize symptoms and appropriately respond, usually in crisis," he remarks.

Seniors often cite mobility challenges as a reason for not being able to get to medical appointments. "There is a huge trend in younger generations to use technology to screen, identify and even treat or locate treatment for health reasons. [Seniors are following.] FaceTime, Skype or the Ontario Telemedicine Network can help put older adults in touch with the health system without having to go personally to the offices," Filinski says.

Remote patient monitoring (RPM) can alert providers to a change in a patient's condition before it requires a visit to the hospital. It delivers services to patients by connecting them with health-care providers via video technology, so experts can perform real-time diagnosis and monitoring. "Our 2014 report found approximately 5,000 patients in Canada are enrolled in 19 RPM programs with a continued growth of 15 to 20 per cent annually," says Dan Strasbourg, director of media at Canada Health Infoway.

It's not only the oldest seniors who are benefiting from technology; it's boomers as well. Spirit50 is a newly launched online portal that uses gameification to inspire baby boomers to increase strength and expand physical ability through targeted fitness plans. Fitness expert Erin Billowits developed the program with the help of the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research in Oakville, Ont., to track how often clients do their exercises and how long it takes them. "We deliver the accountability with regular e-mail and phone coaching, and we deliver the fun through gameification," she says.

Filinski also recognizes that robotic technology is on the horizon. "Other possibilities to consider would be robotics or assessment devices, and medical technological advancements, which can help with our physical limitations as we age. Probably the most common device I see for older adults is the use of lifeline technologies for safety and security while alone," he says.

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University of Toronto's Goldie Nejat, Canada research chair in robots for society, states, "Our work in assistive robotics focuses on the development of intelligent robots that can prompt a person through the activities of daily living for those in their own homes, or in long-term care facilities."

Her team recently unveiled Tangy, a human-like robot that spearheads bingo games at The O'Neill Centre long-term care facility in Toronto. "This project has peaked residents' curiosity and has generated a lot of interest and conversation around robotics and technology in general," O'Neill administrator Pamela Gauci says. In addition to Tangy, Nejat's team created Brian, a robotic dinner companion, and Casper, designed for those who are more independent.

"Technology can be considered both a complement and a curse," Filinski sums. "It improves our communication and access to knowledge, but also allows us to separate from human interaction, which is the great divide between the generations. We need to accept it and embrace it with a cultural shift, but remember that older adults still rely on personal touch and involvement from family, friends and the medical profession at large to use the technology to help prolong life."

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