Leveraging Technology to Improve Mental Health for Seniors


With the population of older adults expected to reach 2 billion worldwide by 2050, there will be a serious shortage of skilled care providers to manage the needs of this population. The sickest older patients (5% of the population) account for nearly 20% of healthcare expenses. The annual cost of dementia care ($106 billion) exceeds that of cancer and heart disease.

Thus, there is a greater need than ever to leverage technology to improve health, quality of life, and social connectivity for less impaired older adults, and assist in clinical care and monitoring of more impaired older adults. For this article, we will focus on the use of communication-based technologies and their impact on senior care.

Communication Infrastructure

Today’s hyperconnected society provides unprecedented infrastructure within which to develop new tools for care of older adults. The ubiquity of cellular phone networks, wireless internet connectivity (Wi-Fi) and development of portable ‘smartphones’ with extraordinary computing capacity are redefining how people communicate. 

Emerging technologies are leveraging this infrastructure to devise innovative applications with the potential to revolutionize healthcare.

Mobile Health and Big Data

The term mobile health (or mHealth) loosely refers to the use of mobile phone technology for health care. This approach facilitates collection of large volumes of clinical data in real time, rapid analysis of these data, and can serve as a platform for administering interventions.

A recent study noted that by collecting high volumes of data using cellphones from patients with bipolar disorder in real time, researchers were able to predict onset of suicidal ideation up to one week prior to in-person clinical visits.1 Intervention applications range from providing psychoeducation 2 to using texting cues for promoting adherence to medications. 3

Smart Homes and Personal Emergency Response Systems

Smart homes are living environments that are equipped with multiple sensors that can detect a person’s activity. For example, a heat sensor mounted on a stove can detect if the stove has accidentally been left on for a prolonged period. Motion sensors can keep track of a person’s mobility in the house and may provide information on triggers of insomnia and other clinical issues like pacing.

Existing prototype smart homes (e.g. the Awarehome at the Georgia Institute of Technology) serve as research environments that guide development of technologies that may aid development of senior-friendly living.

Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS) are devices designed to facilitate emergency responses for older adults. Use of PERS may be especially useful in rapid detection and early response to falls, and use of this technology is a subject of great interest and study. 4 

Sensors and Self-Monitoring Devices

With accelerometers readily available, monitoring of movement, behavior, balance, as well as physiological variables such as heart rate and oxygen saturation, is becoming simpler. Researchers are developing cellphone attachments that can function as otoscopes by attaching simple lenses to cellphone cameras, and sensors that can perform blood tests by connecting through ports to the computing chips in cellphones.