Accelerometer Applications: Can Technology Improve Mental Health in Older Adults?

Technology can help older adults’ mental health and medication management.

It can be devastating to watch seniors struggle with memory problems, low mood, anxiety, or lack of motivation, especially during physical distancing. With waiting lists for mental health appointments stretching for months, you may wonder about alternatives.

Reaching out to family members or religious leaders can be helpful in talking through stressors. Alternatively, self-help books can provide skills or a new perspective for older people who choose to keep their struggles private. But with the explosion of mobile mental health apps, telepsychiatry services, social media, and wearable technology, where does technology fit into treatment?

Fighting ageist stereotypes

Seeing your loved one struggle with their computer may make you wonder whether to pursue technological treatments in the first place. Although older adults may be reluctant to use new technology due to stereotype threat (fear of confirming negative stereotypes), a little help from loved ones can ease technological discomfort. Technology adoption has grown rapidly over the past decade among older adults, and with it come potential benefits for mental health, daily functioning, and quality of life.

Go virtual

A few years after the start of the pandemic, older people are increasingly visiting their doctors virtually. How well does this work for mental health? Fortunately, several studies have shown that virtual therapy is comparable to in-person treatment.

What about mobile apps that remove the human component? Here, the data show that mobile apps can be complementary, although not sufficient, as stand-alone treatments for mental illness.

privacy

When navigating online treatments, you want to make sure the platform you’re using is HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliant, which means your information is protected by law. Zoom and BlueJeans are HIPAA compliant; FaceTime and Skype are not. When using mobile mental health apps, read the privacy policies: red flags include sharing or selling information to third parties and using your information for ads.

Which apps can help seniors the most?

Navigating the explosion of mental health apps for online treatment can be difficult as the landscape is changing rapidly. For teletherapy services, Teladoc, K health, and Doctor on Demand are good places to start.

To complement treatment of common mental illnesses, wellness apps developed by the federal government (including Mindfulness Coach, COVID Coach, and CBT-i Coach) can help teach skills, manage sleep, and track symptoms. Medisafe is the top-rated medication reminder app for good reason: it has excellent privacy features (and with the premium subscription, you can get medication reminders with celebrity voices).

Movement and mental health

We know that physical activity has numerous benefits for brain health in old age: it reduces anxiety and stress, improves symptoms of depression, and even strengthens learning and memory. Wearable technology can play a role in helping older adults set physical activity goals. By using smartwatches (which use accelerometers to track movements), seniors can track how many steps they take, how many calories they burn, and even how well they sleep at night.

Wearable technology also has benefits for caregivers. They can be used to monitor their loved ones for wandering and falls, and can alert them to changes in mood: significant increases or decreases in usual activity levels can herald early signs of depression or anxiety.

Can smartphones be used to improve memory in the elderly?

New research suggests that technology can indeed improve prospective memory and help older adults with mild cognitive impairment continue their daily activities. By using a personal assistant app on their smartphone (digital voice recorder or reminder app), older adults who received event and activity reminders experienced improvements in memory and in their daily activities.

Tips for using technology with older adults

Although the benefits and harms of using technology are still being researched, you can try the following:

  • Encourage older adults to try apps that are based on research, especially if they show interest.
  • If you use a mobile health app, be sure to read the privacy policy. If you use an online mental health platform, make sure it’s HIPAA compliant.
  • Try to set physical activity goals, as physical activity helps improve symptoms of almost any mental illness. Wearable technology that counts steps is a good place to start.
  • Change device settings to improve comfort: this may include optimizing volume and font size to accommodate changes in vision or hearing.

If mental health technology isn’t right for your loved one, that’s okay—technology isn’t always the answer. Treatment is most likely to work when patients believe it will help and can stick with it.

Leave a Comment