Broadband and the Elderly

Caduceus.svgAlmost every list of potential Internet benefits I have ever seen includes the goal of using broadband to allow people to remain in their homes as they age. It’s one of those uses of broadband that has always been right around the corner. And yet, there is still no suite of products that can deliver on this goal.

This is a bit surprising because America is aging and surveys show that a large majority of aging person wants to stay in their home as long as possible. Nursing home and other kinds of care are expensive and people are willing to spend the money on home care if that is possible.

But I think there is some hope on the horizon. AARP has been holding annual expos to allow vendors to display new products for the elderly. In the broadband / technology area the number of vendors at these demos have grown from 80 in 2012 to 228 in 2015. So there are companies working on the needed technologies and products.

It’s not hard to picture what such a suite of products would look like. It certainly would contain the following:

  • A health monitoring system that would check on vitals statistics such as heartbeat, blood pressure, blood sugar and whatever factors were most important for a particular person.
  • A monitoring system that can track the movements of an elderly person and report when they have fallen or not moved for a while.
  • A system that prompts people to take pills or other needed treatments on time.
  • A 2-way communications system that allows the elderly to stay socially connected to the outside world, to have visits with doctor, etc.
  • A smart bot of some sort (like the Apple Siri or the Amazon Echo) that can help the elderly get things done like make appointments or call for groceries.
  • Eventually there would be a robot or robots to make life easier. They could perform everyday functions like taking out the trash, washing dishes or other tasks that are needed by the stay-at-home person.

We are just now starting to see the first generation of useful personal bots, and it should not be too many more years before a smart bot like Siri can become the interface between an elderly person and the world. We still need bots to get better at understanding natural language, but that seems to be improving by leaps and bounds.

We are probably a decade before there will be the first truly useful house robots that can tackle basic household chores. But once these become common it won’t take long for them to improve to the point where they could become nurse, housekeeper and cook for an elderly person.

According the AARP, the biggest hurdle to developing the needed suite of products is the lack of investors willing to fund the needed technologies. For whatever reason investors are not readily backing companies that want to develop products in this space. This is not unusual for complex technologies like this one. Since the solution is complex, investments in any one part of the product suite are risky. Even should a new product work well there is no guarantee that any given product will be included in the eventual bundles of home care products. This makes investors leery about backing any one solution at the early stage of the industry.

But the pressure will remain to develop these products. The US (and much of the rest of the world) is aging. I just read yesterday that there are over 50,000 people in Japan over 100 years old, up from only a thousand or so a few decades ago. Health breakthroughs are letting people live longer and more productive lives. As a society we need to find a solution for our aging population (since we are all going to get there soon enough).

One thing is for sure – good broadband is a key component of this suite of products. If we don’t find a way to get broadband to everybody by the time these products hit the market, then we will be punishing the elderly that live where there is poor broadband. If you think there is a loud public outcry today from folks without broadband, wait until people’s lives depend upon it.

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