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10 Essential Tech Tools for Older Adults

Teresa Mears

The stereotype is that older people are leery of technology and lag behind their digital native grandchildren. But statistics from the Pew Research Center find that 58 percent of those over 65 use the Internet, up from 15 percent in 2000. And the numbers are even higher for more educated and affluent seniors and younger retirees.

Someone who leaves the workforce today may have already worked 30-plus years with computers, and even people in their 90s are embracing smartphones, tablets, social media and other technologies.

Plus, new technology is making it easier for older people to stay in touch with far-flung family, live independently and get help when they need it.

"The more mobile it is, if it's usable by young people, it's usable by seniors," says Leslie Smith, president and CEO of SeniorNet, which provides computer education to seniors in person and online. "They use it to communicate with family and friends. They're using it the same way that a lot of young people are using it," says Smith, a retired IBM business development executive.

Younger retirees' tech needs aren't much different from those of their children. They participate in social media, use the Internet for research, text and email to keep up with friends and family and use Skype or FaceTime for video calls.

"There's a big difference between a 65-year-old and an 85-year-old," says Andrew Carle, executive-in residence and founding director of the Program in Senior Housing Administration at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. "At 65, they're pretty tech savvy. ... There's a tipping point around 75 or 80 where it goes into more assistive technology."

Technology also has the potential to make it easier for seniors to live independently, with devices that can monitor medication management, locate a lost Alzheimer's patient or sense when someone has fallen.

"There's a lot of research and interest going into technology for seniors," says Kari Olson, chief innovation and technology officer for Front Porch, a not-for-profit that provides support services for senior communities. "It's usually designed to make sure that the older adult living alone has connection and help when needed."

Here are 10 tech tools for older adults:

Smartphone. More than 78 percent of Americans over 65 have cell phones, according to Pew data, though only 30 percent have smartphones. SeniorNet, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, has seen its users' interest move from computers to mobile devices and tablets. In addition to using apps that appeal to all ages, such as email, news weather and social media, seniors can use apps to track their blood pressure, deliver medication reminders or play brain-enhancing games.

Tablets and e-readers. Many seniors are replacing their computers with tablets, which give them bigger screens for video conferencing with family, using email, sharing photos and doing Internet research. "They're using them in lieu of the desktop computer," Smith says. Reading books with either a tablet or an e-reader provides an option to make the type larger.

GPS. Whether it's a standalone unit or part of a smartphone, the Global Positioning System technology makes it easier for seniors, like young people, to find their way around. This is particularly helpful for people who retire to a new city or even move into a new neighborhood.

Skype or Facetime. Video call apps are particularly popular with seniors who have grandchildren and other family who live far away. "These interactions don't replace the face-to-face interaction but they can supplement it," Olson says.

Fitness trackers. Wearable fitness monitors make it easy for older adults to monitor activity and sleep, ensuring that they get enough exercise. "The more informed people are about their own health and well-being, the better decisions they make for themselves," Olson says.

Medication monitors. New medication systems alert users when it's time to take medications, repeat the alert if the medication isn't taken within a certain time and call a caregiver if more time passes. Some are combined with medical alert systems that use cellphone technology and contact first the older person, then a friend or family member who has been programmed in ahead of time and then emergency response. "Medication errors are the No. 1 cause of hospitalizations in people over 75," Carle says. "It's an important issue at that age."

Smart watches. Stylish watches are replacing the old "I've fallen and I can't get up" pendants, which many seniors refuse to wear. A watch by Live!y, for example, not only is an alarm button, but also includes a medication reminder, fitness tracker, optional activity sensors for the home and will pair with a cellphone for use away from home. Plus, a fall detector is coming soon. UnaliWear expects to debut a smart watch next year that will include a voice-activated system to guide you home or find you if you become unresponsive.

Online estate repository. The online service Everplans is one option for creating a digital archive that includes wills, trust, passwords, advance directives, information about your home and more, with options to share information with family members.

Transportation apps. The ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft are designed to appeal to the digital natives who solve every problem with smartphone apps. But they also can be invaluable to seniors who no longer drive. In San Francisco, a new startup called Lift Hero is positioning itself as a ride-sharing service for the elderly, hiring medical professionals and students and training them to meet the needs of older passengers.

GPS insoles. A new product called the GPS SmartSole is an insole that can go into the shoes of someone with Alzheimer's so he can be easily found if he wanders off. You can set a perimeter and get a notification if the person leaves that area, plus track him via the GPS in the insoles. Similar technology exists in watches, but people with Alzheimer's or other types of dementia often are resistant to new devices they have to wear.

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