ElderTech: Ideas from a tech exhibit

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Dr. Eleanor Barbera
Dr. Eleanor Barbera

I was at the nursing station the other day when some unusual cracking noises caused me to look up from my documentation. A very old, petite lady was sitting in her wheelchair popping bubble wrap. She wore the same contented expression that comes over virtually everyone popping a sheet of bubble wrap.

This low-tech soother was on my mind during my visit to New York City's CE Week. CE, in this case, is not Continuing Education but Consumer Electronics.

In March, I wrote about attending Aging2.0, a tech conference geared toward elders. The CE Week NY isn't specifically aging tech, but the 50+ set was invited by tech50+ and Senior Planet and I went to see what could be appropriated for people much older than 50.

I was thinking of the happy bubble-wrap popping elder when I came across FidgetTech, a table of high-tech “fidgets.” A fidget spinner is a small, flat plastic device with a central core that remains stable while the three-pronged body is spun in circles. Often marketed as a tool to help children maintain their focus, they've become a craze like yo-yos or Silly Bandz.

The display offered a wide variety of fidgets with various electronic capabilities (music! USB hubs!), but what stood out to me was the possibility of calming agitated elders with a basic, silent fidget that, unlike bubble wrap, wouldn't disturb those around them. I liked the fidget that had “arms” filled with liquid and glitter so that when it stopped, the glitter settled in a slow, mesmerizing fashion. I could imagine a “Fidget Hour” mitigating the agitation that frequently occurs late in the day.

Farther down the exhibit hall, the Rapael Smart Glove display demonstrated virtual reality-based rehabilitation using a variety of computerized games and a plastic sensor “glove.” (Think Wii for hand and arm rehabilitation.) In addition to the high-tech demonstration, they offered low-tech photocopies of a 2016 study published in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation outlining the glove's utility for post-stroke patients. The device would be a useful and impressive addition to rehabilitation services.

Another exhibit that caught my eye was the EyeQue Personal Vision Tracker, which allows users to monitor changes in their vision via software and a miniature optical scope that attaches to a smartphone screen. While it wouldn't replace visits from the optometrist, it could be used in collaboration with them to assess the need for and urgency of a referral or as a resource for residents being discharged to the community.

IQbuds is a comparatively low-cost “assistive audio” device that might be helpful for people with low to moderate hearing loss, especially when they've lost their hearing aids and new ones aren't covered by insurance for another year or two.

Another intriguing item is the Zeeq Smart Pillow. It's designed to deter snoring and also analyzes sleep quality. As I've mentioned before, sleep hygiene is an area that doesn't get as much attention as it should in long-term care. (For more thoughts on sleep hygiene, visit my website and download the free guide, “Stop Agitating the Residents!”)

For staff members using tablet computers, Strotter has designed messenger bags and carry cases that turn into hands-free portable desks, allowing the worker to easily input data wherever they're standing. It was so cool that it made me consider purchasing a tablet so I could get one.

Some readers may be thinking, “Dr. El, are you crazy? We can't afford tech! We need to upgrade our furnishings in order to attract new admissions.”

In my experience, residents and those who love and work with them would prefer shabbier surroundings and a good night's sleep or the ability to hear what people are saying to them. A single resident who is disruptive at 3 a.m. can have a significant impact on the quality of life of the entire community.

It makes more sense to repair rather than replace the broken dresser and to invest the time and money figuring out how to help residents sleep through the night. And then when families tour a facility with imperfect décor, just tell them you're focusing on quality of life more than style.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D., author of The Savvy Resident's Guide, is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is a Gold Medal blogger in the American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A speaker and consultant with more than 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.

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