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New tech helping Boulder County's growing elderly population maintain independence

Daily Times-Call - 11/17/2018

Nov. 17--Boulder County is getting older. By 2040, the Area Agency on Aging estimates that 26 percent of the population will be 60 or older, 8 percent of which will experience some level of dementia. That's the bad news.

The good news is that access to senior care in the area, particularly for dementia patients, has radically improved in recent years. According to Senior Care, a research firm specializing in health care for the elderly, Colorado moved from 20th in terms of affordability and access for long-term care in 2011, to fifth in 2014 and remained in the top 10 since.

At least part of the rise can be attributed to technology.

"Senior care is definitely better than it was 10 years ago," said Ralph Patrick, the regional director of Northern Colorado for the Colorado Alzheimer's Association. "Part of it is because so many more people are dealing with dementia and people are starting to talk about it more openly."

It's not that a larger proportion of people are developing symptoms of dementia, in fact, Boulder County Public Health reports slightly fewer people are being affected each year, but a larger segment of the population is growing older. The average age expectancy in 1918, for example, was 42 years old. Today it is 74.

With a growing market, the tech industry has begun to invest in services for the elderly. The problem, according to a group of seniors attending a recent community forum hosted by the Colorado Alzheimer's Association at the Longmont Senior Center, is that many of those who need assistance are unaware of programs or are not fluent in technology, though the Longmont Senior Center offers free technology classes.

Some of the new tech services revolve around caretakers. Seniorly just expanded into Boulder County. The website aims to help people more easily find assisted living centers for their aging parents by using modern searches and algorithms to pair families with the most suitable communities.

"People find that this industry is very fragmented," said Arthur Bretschneider, CEO of Seniorly. "There is a pretty huge range of prices and a lot of those more affordable options, which tend to be smaller communities that are not corporately owned, have limited or no online presence. Unlike some of the larger players, we don't require a contract to promote their services."

After a short entry form to determine the price range, general location and type of care needed, Seniorly matches families with a local representative who can walk them through the specifics of each option.

"It's something you never anticipate happening," said Scott Nielsen, a Longmont resident who recently had to place his mom in an assisted living center. "My mom's in her 70s and her health declined pretty rapidly, so having a service like Seniorly that knows the industry and can help you navigate the system is really a godsend. I don't know what we would have done without it."

Other developing technologies are designed to help aging people remain in their homes and maintain their independence as long as possible.

Take, for example, Via, essentially an Uber or Lyft service specifically designed for paratransit. Not only does Via get those who can no longer drive to their destinations, but it helps them into the car and makes sure they get to where they need to go once they arrive.

Last year Via offered 100,000 rides in the Longmont and Boulder area.

While Via currently operates a call service, it is hoping to expand its market penetration by developing an on-demand service like Uber or Lyft.

"Our capacity can't keep up with the demand, especially in Longmont," said Lyndsy Morse, Via communications manager. "Moving into next year developing a pilot project for an on-demand app, connecting with those communities, however, is where things start to fall through. That generation is a bit more wary of new technology, but as the boomers grow older they're more and more comfortable using tech."

RTD also offers a service called SeniorRide that provides transportation to events or for groups of 10 or more to go shopping.

Mobility, however, offers other problems for the elderly. What happens if they get lost or injured and can't communicate personal information?

In response to this problem, Boulder County offers Colorado Life Trak, a radio transmission system designed as a circular radio device on a wristband, to assist law enforcement and rescue agencies in locating lost or missing persons who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, autism, dementia or other disorders.

While a $250 donation is requested for the equipment at sign up, for those who can't afford it, the transmitters are free.

The Colorado Alzheimer's Association offers similar programs called MedicAlert and Safe Return.

Though these programs make it easier for elderly people to get around, many would prefer to take a few trips as possible. For those people, several sites such as HealthUnlocked, Healfies and Curatio have incorporated social aspects that allow elderly or disabled individuals to engage with doctors and people with similar experiences from their living rooms.

"These companies are betting on the idea that peer-to-peer connections help people," said Katie Kerns, who specializes in technology for the aging with the site Smart in Five. "Yes, they are using this peer-to-peer connection to build a network or audience. This audience needs medical services, so they could sell that audience to the physician or medical provider. It's not all purely altruistic. Capitalism can coexist with social good."

John Spina: 303-473-1389, jspina@times-call.com or twitter.com/jsspina24

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(c)2018 the Daily Times-Call (Longmont, Colo.)

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