When Hollywood music editor Angie Rubin, 50, worked on the 2012 film “Pitch Perfect,” she used sophisticated sound-editing software to match music tracks with the singers’ lip movements onscreen. But the movie was not the only thing she was trying to synchronize.
Rubin also was managing the health of her 83-year-old mother, who was juggling 10 medications that needed to be taken at specific times, as well as appointments with nine doctors.
Like many of her fellow baby boomers, Rubin was accustomed to solving problems with the help of advanced tech tools. But she believed that a lot of health-care communications still tended to be more phone-and-fax than apps-and-Web.
So Rubin adapted office technology to her caregiving needs. She and her brother, John, continually update a shared Google Docs spreadsheet, tracking their mother’s symptoms, physicians, medications and questions.
“The Google Doc is just because we don’t have a whole bunch of choices,” Rubin said, referring to herself and her brother. “He lives in Boston and I live in L.A.”
According to Forrester Research, 82 percent of all boomers — about 63 million people — regularly use the Internet. That’s about equal to the population of the United Kingdom, and that group spends major amounts on technology.
Most online boomers regularly use a laptop, and within the younger half of this Internet-connected group, more than 40 percent own a smartphone, Forrester reports. A 2012 Nielsen report said that boomers made up 41 percent of Apple computer purchasers.
Recognizing the needs and potential of such a huge market, companies are developing a variety of health-related technologies geared toward the needs of people in their 50s and 60s. Some of the technologies are aimed at the baby boomers themselves and others at helping people like Rubin care for aging parents.
“There’s a massive market opportunity for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to build companies that proactively address the needs of baby boomers as they age,” said Kelsey Cole, director of Koa Labs, a shared working space for start-ups in Cambridge, Mass.
Wearable devices that read a user’s heart rate and blood pressure are being marketed not only to marathoners and others who want to track such data but also to middle-age people who like to keep tabs on their health. “Smart” refrigerators that register when you’re running out of milk can help adult children keep track of their aging parents’ nutrition from far away. Sensitive floor pads are being manufactured to detect falls.
The Koa fund has invested in a start-up called PillPack, an online pharmacy that delivers pills by mail in small plastic sleeves, organized by dose and time of day. Each packet is labeled with the date and time to take the clearly marked medicine.
Company co-founder TJ Parker, 28, said he came up with the idea when he saw how some nursing homes were packaging their residents’ pills according to when they needed to be taken. He decided to expand that idea into a mail-order online pharmacy to make it easier to organize and change prescriptions online.
“Almost everyone had this crossed-out and highlighted Excel spreadsheet on their fridge,” Parker said. “I got really interested in how you would fix this problem.”
He said PillPack is designed to help people order their parents’ medicine in exact doses online.
Boomers have grown accustomed to top-notch design in consumer technologies, said Cole, of Koa Labs. “They fundamentally desire technology that’s delightful to use and creates meaningful experiences for them. As they transition into later life, they’ll want those same experiences to address the fundamental needs of aging.”
Technology in almost every area is changing at lightning speed, but health-care communications still rely heavily on traditional mail and fax machines, said Mark Singh, a Boston physician.
So Singh began a start-up, HermesIQ, that collects the medical faxes and other reports that fly among various practitioners, digitizes them, separates the routine from the important, and then establishes a Web forum where multiple doctors and patients can comment collaboratively on reports or test results.
“A lot of doctors are really interested in something like this,” he said. “Anything that smooths the process, streamlines it, is something they’re very interested in.”
Dean Kamen, 63, is a Thomas Edison of the boomer generation. He is best known for inventing the Segway personal transportation device, and holds more than 440 patents for systems that include the first portable dialysis machine, a startlingly dexterous prosthetic robotic arm, cheap water filtration devices and more.
He said one of his inventions that holds promise for people hoping to age independently is the iBOT, a robotic wheelchair that can climb stairs and raise its users up to standing height, so they can reach a counter or a coat rack.
Johnson & Johnson licensed the technology and began to produce the device, but did not sell more than a few hundred units per year. One problem, Kamen said, was that it was expensive — $22,000 — and many insurers, including Medicare, would cover only a fraction of the expense. But Kamen hopes that in time people will consider it cost effective, as it can delay or prevent a move into an expensive nursing home and allow people to work longer.
While technology-enabled services such as grocery delivery and transportation apps continue to change everyday tasks for users of all ages, they may be particularly useful to older adults. Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab, said that Uber, the ride-sharing service, could provide a creative way to organize transportation for older relatives.
Innovators are working on many tech devices geared toward boomers, including Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids and even age-friendlier cars designed to enhance driver awareness and reaction times.
Kamen considers caregiving technologies the ultimate challenge. There’s still no robot that can provide the most basic human needs, he said, such as using the bathroom and washing. Yet he remains optimistic. In the sheer size and tech savvy of his boomer generation, Kamen envisions a force that will demand that public and private sectors alike create new technologies to serve the elderly.
“I think not only are they demanding it,” he said, “but they are, as a group, capable of assuring that it occurs.”
Yoquinto is a freelance science writer and research associate at the MIT AgeLab.