Jan Greene

For years, Silicon Valley has been selling an enticing vision that technology, with its apps and wearables, would solve the problem of caring for an aging population and all of its expensive chronic illnesses. But while the ballyhooed devices meant to alert doctors of a dangerous arrhythmia and assorted other problems may be smart, they haven’t been very popular. The low-tech “I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up” medical alert device that’s been around since 1989 remains the number one choice for vulnerable seniors.

Getting older people to bring a new technology into their homes has been more difficult than expected, and physicians don’t have time to process the information coming from multiple medical monitoring devices on their patients. Nevertheless, the tech industry continues to work on new options, and there are some intriguing possibilities on the horizon for 2017 and beyond. David Lindeman, director of the Center for Technology and Aging, a program of the Public Health Institute in Oakland, Calif., that evaluates and advocates for care technology, sees some of these as coming very soon—ingestibles that confirm a medication was taken, for example.

Amazon Echo

The popular tech gadget Amazon Echo has won praise for people with disabilities and their advocates.

Already on the market are devices such as the Amazon Echo, which allows the user to get information and control their home environment with voice commands. Sensors that detect when a person might fall are in development, Lindeman says, and driverless cars could be “a game changer” for frail elders who are no longer confident behind the wheel.

Certainly the problem of tracking the growing population of older, frail Americans isn’t going away. Most of the responsibility for the chronically ill lands on family members and other informal caregivers. According to an AARP report released in November, caregivers of family members have, on average, about $7,000 in out-of-pocket expenses each year. The gadgets aren’t free, of course, and cost is one of the reasons they haven’t caught on even if they might (it’s far from a sure thing) save caregivers time and money in the long run.

Smart technology will be coming our way, says David Lindeman of the Center for Technology and Aging. Ingestibles, for instance.

But as capitation grows and alternatives to hospitalization become ever more attractive from every perspective, health plans have a clear interest in finding low-cost solutions for the coming caregiving crisis, says Richard Adler, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, an independent research organization in Palo Alto, Calif. For devices to be more attractive to older people, though, they need to be introduced the old-fashioned way, according to Adler.

“There needs to be a human interface, a friendly helping hand,” he says. “There’s a pent-up demand among older people for technology, but it has to be met in a nonthreatening way.”