Accelerometer Apps: Can Technology Improve Older Adults’ Mental Health?

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

It can be devastating to see older adults struggling with memory problems, low mood, anxiety, or lack of motivation, especially during times of physical distancing. With waiting lists for mental health appointments stretching out for months, you may be wondering about alternatives.

Reaching out to family members or religious leaders can be helpful to discuss stressors. Alternatively, self-help books can provide skills or a new perspective for older adults 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 age stereotypes

Watching your loved one struggle with their computer, you may wonder if you should pursue technology-based treatments in the first place. Although older adults may be reluctant to use new technology because of stereotype threat (the fear of confirming negative stereotypes), a little help from loved ones can alleviate technology 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.

Going virtual

A couple of years into the pandemic, older adults are increasingly seeing their doctors virtually. How well does this work for mental health? Fortunately, several studies have shown that virtual therapy is comparable to face-to-face treatment.

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

privacy

When you’re browsing 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 mental health mobile apps, read the privacy policies: red flags include sharing or selling information to third parties and using your information for advertising.

Which apps can help older people the most?

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

To complement treatment for 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 great privacy features (and with the premium membership, you can receive 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 depressive symptoms, and even strengthens learning and memory. Wearable technologies can play an important role in helping older adults set physical activity goals. By using smartwatches (which use accelerometers to track movements), seniors can monitor how many steps they take, how many calories they burn, and even how well they sleep at night.

Wearable technologies also have benefits for caregivers. They can be used to watch loved ones for slips and falls, and can alert them to changes in mood: a significant increase or decrease 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 improve prospective memory and help older adults with mild cognitive impairment continue their daily activities. By using a personal assistant app on their smartphone (a digital voice recorder or a reminder app), older adults who received reminders about events and activities experienced memory benefits and improvements in their activities of daily living.

Tips for using technology with older people

While the benefits and harms of using technologies are still being studied, you can try the following:

  • Encourage seniors to try research-based apps, especially if they express 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 all mental illnesses. Wearable technologies that count steps are a good place to start.
  • Modify device settings to improve comfort: This may include optimizing volume and font size to accommodate changes in vision or hearing.

If mental health technology doesn’t fit your loved one, that’s okay—technology isn’t always the answer. Treatments are more likely to work when patients believe it will help and can stick with it.

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