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Smoke signals and caregiving apps -- what should they do?
The year of the 'care'. As one VC executive, Andy Donner of Physic Ventures, noted recently, this is the year of the 'care'. There seems to be a growing list of vendors who are trying to offer some sort of 'keep in touch' product that connects an older person with family members who may live elsewhere. The basic element is to provide some means to signal 'concerned about you' from family members and obtain the response 'I'm all right' from the older family member back to them -- accompanied by the ability to react in the event that the response is not received. Add-ons include devices with environmental sensors, health-related self-care devices, health record tracking, reminders, and communication capabilities.
The statistics offer a compelling backdrop -- the 'Florida' problem. If you count the 44 million people estimated to be caregivers, that's an eye-popping number -- and if you add various valuations of the care they provide at $350 billion, we're talking about a sizable phenomenon -- and an opportunity for well-designed assists from technology innovators. The core characteristic of the problem that vendors seem to be tackling is the fact that worried family members are not physically present -- the 'Florida problem.' Aging and sun-drenched seniors have children who are scattered around the country and want to know via an electronic smoke signal that all is okay with a mom or dad. And vice-versa: Mom or Dad do not want to be pressured into leaving Florida or Arizona or wherever to live near a daughter or son in New Jersey or California.
Ask yourself -- who is the user, the buyer, the caregiver? Last year, I heard ideas about charging seniors user fees to participate in a caregiving app. That seems to have run its course, thankfully. Now in general I hear that prospective buyers in the 'smoke signal' circle are adult children, but also included in this circle are professional caregivers for notification, perhaps a call center (think service fees), and if all else fails, 911. Professionals that serve seniors can also be 'buyers' for resale to their constituent family members -- think home care agencies, geriatric care managers, and senior housing organizations -- although it's a new business model and entrants seem uncertain about it.
The caregiver market level of technology adoption. It's instructive to look at what technology caregivers say they use today: in the recent Caregiving in the US of 50+, 16% of caregivers reported using an emergency response system, 12% use some eHealth device, and 10% reported using safety-related sensors. Twenty-three percent said they turn to the Internet for information, although this seems low given that 8% also are seeking information from government programs and another 14% from disease or age-related programs, so easily found on the Internet. The top information need: 38% (up from 31% in 2004) were concerned about 'keeping recipients safe at home', followed by 'easy activities to do with the recipient' (34%).
What infrastructure do caregivers and recipients have? Let's look at the late December, 2007 responses from caregivers in the AARP Healthy@Home survey: 78% said they have a computer, 51% said they had broadband, 81% had a cell phone, and 71% said they had cable television. Staying with that same survey, two-thirds of those 65+ have a computer in their home, one-third had broadband (higher than the most recent Pew Research number of 26%)and 42% have dial-up.
Build assumptions around the facts. Caregivers are users of technology, will access the Internet to solve problems they have, most likely will search for what they know (like PERS devices or government or age-related sites, then possibly disease-related). So as you design software and web marketing, use these assumptions to design websites and search terms. From the Caregiving Information Needs alone, combining safety and care recipient activities (games, photo slide shows, camera-based chat) would be optimal -- transforming a minimalist 'smoke signal' interaction into a quality of life improvement. Does that mean innovators have to build all that into their products? Not necessarily -- working with a channel partner or partnering with other vendors could be the most sensible strategy. Step 1 for entrants considering whether to enter or what to do: attend a trade show event where other vendors exhibit, so that you can self-educate and decide in a larger context about functionality and partnerships.