5 Ways Smartphones Will Help Tomorrow’s Elderly

My father suffered from an illness known as Lewy Body Dementia, a debilitating condition similar to Alzheimer’s Disease, but with an added dose of delusional behavior and profound loss of comprehension with regard to everyday tasks. Over the last year of his life he came to depend on a small, handwritten piece of paper with two phone numbers and two sets of login credentials to manage simple tasks.

The phone numbers belonged to me and my brother. I discovered they served as a lifeline in his ever-narrowing window of coherence when I tried to move them for one of his meals. He insisted firmly it must remain where it was visible or else he couldn’t relax. Having our mobile numbers close by during the worst of his illness served as a smoke signal, a flag crying out to him, comforting him.

The other important written information consisted of his email and bank account details. We’d already changed the passwords to things that were easy to read, easy to spell, and easy to understand. We were forced to abandon complex passwords, sensible security questions, and rely on things like saved cookies. His routine each day was to log on and watch his inbox for sweepstakes he never won. Within a few hours, frustrated by over 20 tabs open and a browser that was locked up, he’d come asking for help.

His other routine involved checking his bank balance every few hours. I believe this gave him another layer of comfort. My father didn’t like to use his debit card for more than withdrawing money and checking his balance. Thieves were always near by. But he could use the online site, which became handy once he stopped driving.

Elders and mobile technology

These experiences forced me to think long and hard about how we use technology with the elderly or those with dementia. Dealing with the world of dementia in this age of connected devices, cloud-based services, and the Internet can be challenging. But mobile technology can help. AT&T offers medicine bottles that remind you of your dosage times. Some apps offer support to the family caregiver like tips on how to handle certain situations. There are even apps intended to entertain and stimulate the caregiver in ways that make it easier on the patient.

But the field should expand beyond diagnosis and entertainment as the aging population moves from the Greatest Generation to the Boomer Generation and beyond. The next generation of dementia patients have grown up with these devices. Providers must work quickly to prepare for the types of apps we’ll be using as we age. Your parent might not understand smartphones, but their grandchild does.

When we age, we more easily handle things that are familiar — the voice feature of the phone for my father and the mobile capabilities of the smartphone for me. No way could he have navigated the map features when lost. As his illness progressed, if his phone beeped my father might stare at it for ten minutes trying to determine if the sound came from it. It was too new, too unfamiliar.

The future of “caregiving” technology

Future smart devices should bring us options to ease dementia and related conditions. Some examples of features I know would benefit caregiver and patient alike include:

  • Reminders (medicine, appointments, eating)
  • Memory support services (icons and sound over words and menus)
  • Easy communications (chat, texting, calling)
  • Tracking/location services (finding a lost relative)
  • Universal remote (home automation)

As hard as it is to fathom, dementia patients forget to eat or to bathe. They may forget to get dressed for an appointment or take medicines. Today’s smartphones can help with that. But what about ways to handle anxiety? Many situations arise during times of high anxiety. When panic increases, a familiar photo or audio program can bring relief and comfort. Imagine the worry caused by confusion and how a familiar sight might calm nerves.

If my father had wandered off, a smartphone would have led us to him faster than a phone call. And when it comes my turn, I’ll use it to control the television, radio, even the doors. No need for five remotes or multiple devices to charge.

Simplicity in everything is the key to living a safe and secure life with dementia. I look forward to mobile devices doing more to help — and they will, if we build the apps for it.

What tasks can you imagine smartphones of the future doing for the elderly? Do you have suggestions for apps to help caregivers and patients? If so, please share them in comments.
Jeff Morgan Lead Product Marketing Manager AT&T About Jeff