Tech

Apple’s New Health Features Bring Focus to Elder Care Technology

At WWDC 2021, Apple announced a variety of new features for Apple Health that could be used by anyone with an iPhone. Two of these tools, walking steadiness and the ability to share health data with family members, could be particularly useful for older adults.

People who work with older adults are excited that a company like Apple is interested in tech that could be used for this group. Experts have spent years frustrated that companies don’t design products to meet the needs of that demographic.

There have been a few attempts to introduce new tools, but none got much traction, says Richard Schulz, a social psychologist studying aging at the University of Pittsburgh. “I think the reason is that the big boys — companies like Apple — never got into it,” Schulz says. “Apple getting into this is a big deal.”

Walk Steadiness

The first feature, the walking steadiness indicator, targets a major issue for older adults: falling. Falls are the leading cause of accidents, injury, and death for seniors in the US, and they’re responsible for billions in healthcare costs each year.

Apple’s new walking steadiness feature aims to track people as they move through their daily lives. It uses metrics like walking speed, step length, and the time both feet are in contact with the ground to monitor how stable a user is. It can only be measured on the iPhone, not an Apple Watch, because some of the metrics have to be calculated from as close to the hip as possible, Apple says.

Apple Watch already has a fall detection feature that can prompt users to call emergency services or automatically make a call if the user is immobile for around a minute. The new iPhone capability focuses on prediction, rather than response: it can tell people if they’re walking steadily and issue an alert if it thinks they’re at an increased risk of falling. Apple says the system is based on data collected during a clinical study that included over 100,000 participants of all ages.

Data Sharing

Apple will also now let users share their health data with other people. The feature could be a major convenience for family members and caregivers of older adults, who may want or need to keep track of someone’s health metrics. Currently, they might have to collect information from multiple different sources — a heart rate app, a blood pressure monitor system. The Apple sharing feature could give them direct access in one place.

It also raises privacy concerns for older adults. The Apple feature is controlled entirely by the user, who gets to decide in the app what information they want shared and with whom. In reality, though, older people who aren’t comfortable with technology may not be able to take charge of that decision themselves.

Some people might be very comfortable opening up their Health app to family members, but there’s still a power dynamic involved. Older adults tend to like monitoring technology less than their adult children, and say they want to maintain their privacy without feeling watched.

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