Elderly still not using apps for health, but tomorrow’s seniors might

By: Neil Versel | Oct 16, 2012        

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Neil_Versel_LargeAs baby boomers age, many are taking greater control over their own healthcare than any generation before them, and mobile technology is be a big part of that movement. But today’s elderly might not be interested in gadgets and apps.

“Seniors aren’t using apps for health,” healthcare technology consultant and futurist Mary Cain, managing director of San Francisco-based HT3, said at last week’s Health 2.0 Conference in that same city. In fact, that’s pretty much how Cain led off a session she moderated on digital tools for healthy aging, in case any of the many startup companies and venture capitalists in attendance had any wrong ideas.

Calling someone “senior” or “elderly” is tricky business in the context of healthcare, and those terms do not mean what they did a generation or two ago. Average life expectancy at birth in the U.S. hit 78.5 years in 2009, up from 76.8 in 2000 and 73.7 in 1980. Turning 65 makes you eligible for Medicare, but it sure doesn’t make you elderly in today’s America. There’s a big difference between being 65 and being 85.

While I admittedly don’t talk to as many poor, uneducated people as I perhaps should in this line of work, just about every 60-something I know now has a smartphone and is just as willing to download apps and send text messages as younger adults. But that’s not so much the case with those over the age of 80. That might change as the boomer generation hits their 70s and 80s in the middle of next decade, but I can’t imagine my 93-year-old grandmother ever having a smartphone.

(You may remember that I was looking for home monitoring technology for her earlier this year, but my family determined that even the most basic touch-screen tablet would be too confusing for her. We were leaning toward a “passive” wearable monitor that would automatically summon help in case of a fall, but we eventually moved her into an apartment building where all residents are issued “active” monitoring pendants that require the wearer to push a button – not exactly practical when the person is unconscious or disoriented. Old, tired technology that somehow is considered acceptable, just like so many other aspects of healthcare. But I digress.)

Sure, there are some companies selling gadgets for aging in place that have made apps, but that’s not their primary line of business and the apps aren’t for the seniors themselves, but rather for clinicians and caregivers.

Laura Mitchell, VP of business development for GrandCare Systems, maker of communication and monitoring systems for independent living since 2006, said that the West Bend, Wis.-based company has no immediate plans to create an Android, iOS or Amazon Kindle version of its software. GrandCare’s technology for delivering news feeds and communications from clinicians, family and friends and for collecting “observations of daily living” and vital signs from patients is proprietary code written in Linux, and that works just fine for now, Mitchell said.

I just hope there is interoperability with electronic health records at some point because the last thing healthcare needs is more data silos. But the EHR vendors need to get serious about breaking down the silos, too. I think they are heading in the right direction, though we might not be there until Stage 3 of “meaningful use,” which will not begin before 2016.

I’ve now been to four of the six annual Health 2.0 events since Matthew Holt and Dr. Indu Subaiya launched the movement in 2007. Each time, I’ve seen a little bit of the breathless hype fade away and a little more realism set in. It’s no longer a novelty for older Americans to have mobile phones, but marketing smartphone apps to them isn’t like selling games to younger people.

The time for apps will come. Just don’t count on the World War II generation being your best customers.

  • JO

    “just about every 60-something I know now has a smartphone”

    Wow, you hang out with some tech-savvy 60-somethings!  This survey indicates that approx 25% of people over 60 have a smart phone.  Whether or not they can manage to install an app from the App Store is another question.

    But I agree with you.  The time for apps will come.  But I wouldn’t count on high penetration into the 60+ market just yet.

  • JO
  • Bcrowley

    I am 59 and use an iPhone and upload apps frequently. I use iTriage, Pinterest, play Knights On Rush and of course Twitter. Once we gave my 86 year old mother clear instructions on how to upload and use apps, she has been off and running. She’ll wake up in the middle of the night and play games on her phone until she can fall asleep again. She is definitely proud of her tech accomplishments and enjoys the social apps which reduce her feelings of isolation. We may be outliers now but increased app activity in the near future among older adults seems to be inevitable.

  • http://twitter.com/skram Mark Silverberg

    Thanks for bringing the topic of eldercare to the front page. I’ve too wondered why so many organizations focus only on apps whereas elder usage of smartphones is much lower than the younger demographic (currently).
    As a health/science developer, what tools do elderly patients need? How do they prefer to get information if not face-to-face (expensive)? Is it text message? natural conversation w/ a telephone system? 

  • http://twitter.com/Care_Calls CareCalls

    This is so true. And technology moves on far quicker than we age, so when the mid generation become the ‘elderly people’ they will be using smartphones and
    gadgets, yet we’ll be on to the next best thing!

    The most effective way to increase the
    use of technology in the care industry, is to focus on the mid generation and
    talk to them as informal carers to their elderly parents, encouraging them to
    do more for their loved ones but also educating them now for when they become
    old and vulnerable!!

  • Peter Smith

    It is not so true that the smartphones are not for seniors. It depends what smartphone, or better what that phone runs. In my case I have installed http://www.livlivsolutions.com into my fathers android phone. And he loves it! It is a simple smartphone that he can use. And now we can share pictures, I can remotely help him. It is a great improvement from his old brick phone.

  • http://www.sunshinenaturalhealing.com/ George

    Its because they don’t use technology in general. The “elderly” that I do know that are moderately tech-savvy actually do use these kinds of apps. All depends on the person.

  • Susan Torrico

    You said it!  Tech savvy boomers are also health-savvy and need to know that well-designed, feature-rich and reliable apps, like OnTimeRx, are available for iPhones and Androids now! 

    Unfortunately, a lot of young, healthy programmers seem to think that a dose timer is all that’s needed.  As a result, the mobile app market is clogged with too many lame apps that don’t really help.  Give OnTimeRx a try and you’ll see what 35 years  in pharmacy practice has produced.

  • Lexwood


    As you mention, seniors has a very broad definition; anything from 65 to 95 and beyond. The first wave of the babyboom crossing over to Medicare may have brought their technology comfort with them, but the middle manager from a large company is going to be more plugged into technology than someone who worked in another type of job in a less plugged-in industry. And these 65 year olds are not typically the people who need and use the most expensive healthcare solutions.

    The path to revenue is based on segmentation, by need, by health condition, etc. In  some focus groups, we’ve seen 60 year olds look like the parent of the 80 year old sitting next to them.

  • http://AmeriGlide.com/ Amy Blitchok at AmeriGlide.com

    like in-home monitoring systems, that allow seniors to age in place and
    maintain a balance of safety and independence has real and practical benefits.
    The question is how would a smartphone improve quality of life for
    seniors. What kind of apps would they be useful enough to motivate them
    to learn new technology? It seems that a tablet would be a much more user
    friendly tool than a smartphone.