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Wearables: From Accessory to Necessity

When most people think about wearable technology, they think about exercise tracking products such as Fitbits, Samsung Galaxy Fit, Apple Watch, Xiaomi Mi, and Garmin Vivosmart. Commercials for these products typically show younger people running while wearing wearable technology or checking the wearable at the end of a run.  However, wearables are not just for the young.

The benefits of wearables is becoming part of everyday life for patients and healthcare providers.  They are multi-functional and can monitor fall detection, heart rate monitoring, GPS tracking, sleep data, and more are available with wearable devices.  The critical data delivered from these devices can be life-saving, especially for our senior adults.

By 2050, it is estimated that over 20% of the U.S. population will be over the age of 65.  The number of people over the age of 65 will outnumber children by 2030.   As the aging population continues to grow, the aging in place trend also continues to grow. A recent AARP study on technology states that 3 in 4 older Americans want to stay at home and age in place.  Technology plays a crucial role in making that a reality for many seniors, and wearable devices are a critical part of that technology mix.

Wearable devices allow seniors to monitor their health and get help in the event of an emergency.  These devices also provide family members, caregivers, and healthcare providers peace of mind as they have access to monitoring, insights, and some level of control over their loved one’s health. 

As the graph below demonstrates, as people age, their adoption of wearable devices and technology diminishes greatly.  Given the peace of mind and safety wearables can provide, the question to answer is how we grow adoption as our population ages.

Statistic: Adoption rate for wearable technology among older adults in the U.S. as of 2019, by age group | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

There have been very few studies that have evaluated the usage and adoption of wearable technology amongst seniors.  The National Institute of Health (NIH) has published two recent studies: the first published in May of this year, looks specifically at the adoption of fitness trackers, and the second, published in August of this year, looks at wearable adoption overall.

The first study discusses the challenge with fitness tracker adoption and outlines early adoption vs. longer-term usage.  Seniors are quick to adopt trackers initially, but after the novelty effect wears off, long term use suffers.  The study showed that 50% of seniors stop utilizing their tracker within six months.  Physical activity is critical to maintaining good health. It lowers the risk of depression, cognitive decline, and obesity. 

What can be done to increase consistent long term use of fitness trackers?

Personal experience has taught me to start small and work towards more adoption and usage.  I bought my mom a fitness tracker to help her focus on increasing her activity level.  As mentioned above, physical activity is key as we age to ensure optimal health.  Initially, as studies have shown, the “neat” factor kicked in, and she wore it and used it.  A few weeks in, that stopped.  I created a walking challenge for the two of us to ensure she not only formed the habit of wearing the fitness tracker but made good use of the data.  We are walking to key U.S. locations, including the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, and the Grand Canyon.  By configuring the device for her, showing her how to keep track of her progress, and creating goals for her to achieve, she formed a new habit.  The fitness tracker and exercise have now become part of her daily routine.

The second study looks at the adoption of wearables overall.  One of the key barriers to increased adoption is the perceived complexity of wearable devices.  Seniors are slower to adopt technology overall, and the complexity of wearables slows adoption down even more.  The study also found that perceived complexity goes down when a senior sees one of their peers interacting with the device.  This finding presents a unique opportunity to ensure simplicity is built in from the beginning.  Organizations such as B.H. Tech Group are focused on helping seniors feel more comfortable with technology.  As seniors gain more confidence in the usage of wearable devices, they will share that confidence with their peers and drive up adoption.

If they are not already, device designers and manufacturers need to take advantage of this finding and use design and problem-solving methodologies that keep the user at the core.  Design Thinking is a great example of one type of process that could deliver a more simplistic and potentially more adopted wearable.  One of the key elements of Design Thinking is its human-centered approach which, creates an intense focus on understanding all you can about who will be using the product, how they will use it, and what problem it solves for them. 

The wearable tech market is projected to be worth more than $51 billion by the year 2022.  As more companies, non-profit organizations, and investors enter the market,  seniors will be a target audience.  In a recent blog post, the Aging in Place Technology website references RockHealth as a “first venture fund dedicated to digital health.”  RockHealth states in its September 2020 report that 2020 marks a material turning point for aging in place and the technology that supports it, including wearable devices.  Beyond investors, organizations like The Thrive Center have a mission to promote innovation, including wearables, that improve healthy aging and senior living.

As the market grows with new entrants who are focused on delivering a less complex solution, wearable technology will deliver on the vast benefits it offers to seniors by allowing them to age in place and remain independent more easily.  As adoption grows, more and more their family members and caregivers can also have the peace of mind that comes with knowing their loved ones have the safety net wearables can provide.   

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