Exploring innovations and technologies to take on vision and hearing loss in older adults is an important focus area for the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing.
Since 2017, FPCIW has developed a number of pilot projects and studies in partnership with the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) Foundation to assess older adult needs and to investigate various consumer devices to support aging and independence.
Recent data from FPCIW’s community projects have provided some key insights into hearing and vision loss among older adults. Of 441 older adults surveyed across several communities, 42% expressed challenges living with low vision, while 49% reported issues with hearing. These are staggering statistics that lead to important consequences to the health and wellness of older adults.
SOUND: The prevalence of hearing loss doubles per age decade and begins as early as one’s 40s. Hearing loss impacts a person’s quality of life, but a growing body of research suggests that age-related hearing loss can directly contribute to an increased risk of cognitive and physical decline. A recent NPR story on loneliness and hearing loss found that loneliness is associated with high blood pressure, elevated stress hormones, and a weakened immune system, which all contribute to dementia. Despite these figures, less than 20% of people with hearing loss use hearing aids, as reported by the National Institutes of Health.
Hearables for All was one of FPCIW’s first major exploration of consumer technologies to support the hearing needs of older adults. We examined Eversound, a group listening technology for senior living, and the emergence of personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) that are readily available without the need for a prescription. With the continued adoption (and cultural acceptance) of inclusive and more sophisticated hearing technologies, we embarked on an additional test of devices with older adult consumers for our Sound and Vision project.
We researched and explored a variety of new consumer PSAP devices and provided them to 10 older adult volunteers at Front Porch and other partner communities in consultation with field experts. FPCIW conducted user testing among older adults for 3 months along with device training, hearing loss education, and data collection. Despite the difficulties and challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to recruit and train participants, we found high satisfaction among our volunteers:
“I just wanted to hear better, and I can, but it also cancels out sounds [in noisy environments] – especially at restaurants”
“Having it on right now, talking to you on the phone, it’s improved my ability to talk and communicate [with you] 100%”
“I was watching Netflix on the computer while the washing machine was going on in the background, but I couldn’t hear [the washing machine]. It wasn’t competing with the sound on the computer.”
“[I found my PSAP most helpful when] watching TV or speaking with my daughter. If I didn’t have them on, she would have to repeat some things to me”
VISION: Vision loss can gradually impact independence, making things like reading, socializing, and pursing hobbies more difficult. It can also affect basic self-care activities of daily living such as eating, dressing, shopping, medication managing, and driving. Specifically, vision loss can significant decrease older adults’ quality of life, and can even put them at a risk of falls, injury, and worsened states of mental health, cognition, and social engagement. Statistics from a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that:
- 3 million American adults 65 years and older report having some sort of vision loss;
- 10% of adults ages 75 and up are blind or have serious trouble seeing, even when wearing glasses; and
- 7% of persons with severe vision impairment reported having fallen (compared to 27.7% among those without impairment).
Though our Sound and Vision project and with additional support from the Front Porch Foundation (formerly Pacific Homes Foundation), FPCIW evaluated various vision applications and technology solutions to address the challenges of low vision in older adults. The IrisVision headset was developed to assist with conditions such as macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa (RP), retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), and glaucoma. The device is currently available free to veterans under a prescription from the Veterans Administration. (See the below resource link for more information.)
We conducted a pilot test of the headset at Wesley Palms, a Front Porch low vision friendly community. IrisVision had deeply impacted one of our pilot participants when he told us a story of what he was able to see since starting to use the headset. Living with macular degeneration for years, one volunteer eventually lost the ability to watch baseball games and read his favorite articles in the National Geographic. This changed after his first week of using the IrisVision headset when he reported back to us that he had been able to see his wife’s face for the first time in five years. He also exclaimed how colors were much more vibrant and that he could see one of the staff member’s “fire engine red jacket!”
FPCIW also conducted a 3-week virtual vision case study in which we trained an older adult user on how to navigate and successfully use 3 different mobile vision apps on their smartphone (Sullivan+, BeMyEyes, and Aira). Based on our research, we believed that these innovative apps provided important vision assistance to older adult users living with various vision conditions.
FPCIW’s Sound and Vision project tests opened the door for many older adults to experience emerging hearing and vision assistive technologies. Learning these new technologies offered new opportunities for older adults to regain some of their independence confidence. Our Sound and Vision toolkit outlines the importance of education and awareness of vision and hearing loss, the devices and apps we tested, and a starting point for the growing older adult consumer market for these solutions.
View the Sound and Vision Toolkit.
View the Vision Support Guide for Vets.
Read the CIW’s Final Report about the Hearables for All pilot.