Is the new Apple Watch ready for Grandma?
The Series 4 Apple Watch now in stores pitches itself as a Food and Drug Administration-cleared "proactive health monitor" and a "guardian" that will call help if you take a hard fall. Its screen is 30 percent larger. You won't see Apple say "senior citizen" in ads — yet suddenly, grandmothers are thinking about getting one. Adult children looking to keep parents safe are curious, too.
So I sought help in reviewing the new Watch from a gang of tech-savvy seniors. Seven members of the Computer Club of Rossmoor, a 55-plus community in California, helped me set up, poke and prod the new model. No seniors were harmed in testing the fall-detection tech.
Just when you think I'm critical, older adults have even less tolerance for tech that isn't clear, reliable and affordable. There wasn't a technophobe among my helpers. After our tests, one of them — a satisfied Apple Watch owner — decided she would definitely upgrade. None of the others were sold.
When the Watch debuted in 2015, most seniors couldn't see the point. As of earlier this year, only 4 percent of Americans older than 65 had bought any kind of smartwatch, according to Forrester Research. But with this fourth version, my gang was curious. "It's one of those iPhones that's been shrunk to wrist size by Dick Tracy," said Art Salzfass, 83.
Good on Apple for recognizing tech has a lot to offer the older adults often overlooked by Silicon Valley. That we're even talking about FDA clearance shows how the Apple Watch has matured into a truly personal kind of gadget. This is the first version that feels speedy and connected enough to think of as a stand-alone device.
Know the hype from reality
What I learned from my elders is that the Apple Watch has lots to offer seniors not deterred by a $400 starting price. It's pretty good at encouraging you to exercise. It can gather data about your heart. And you're less likely to miss calls when your phone is on your wrist (yes, like Dick Tracy).
Just don't let the hype about the new Watch's capabilities get ahead of its reality. It's heavier than some traditional watches and one more thing you will have to charge daily. Some of those new health functions have yet to prove how much they will help. And as a substitute for your phone, it still has a pretty small screen — and even tinier buttons.
Buzz about the Watch's new health capabilities was the biggest draw for my seniors. But studying the fine print splashed a little cold water on their expectations.
Let's start with that fall detector, a competitor to the Life Alert I've-fallen-and-I-can't-get-up wearable. With the new Apple Watch, a hard fall is supposed to activate a message on its screen asking whether you need help. If you don't respond, it will place an SOS call from your wrist.
"That is a really neat feature at our age, instead of a necklace," said John Helmus, 76.
Trust but verify, right? I didn't ask any of my seniors to take a plunge. But in the interest of science, I've tried jumping off ledges and throwing myself onto furniture. The thing never went off. (The feature is on by default only for people older than 65, but I turned mine on.) It's possible, even likely, that the Watch could tell I was faking.
What's important is actual falls, not stunts. Apple said it studied the falls of 2,500 people of varying ages. Yet the company hasn't said how often it catches real falls or sets off false alarms. This isn't like claiming the "best camera ever" on a smartphone — if Apple wants us to think of its products as life aids, it ought to show us the data. Even better: peer-reviewed studies.
Apple's disclaimer says: "Apple Watch cannot detect all falls. The more physically active you are, the more likely you are to trigger Fall Detection due to high impact activity that can appear to be a fall."
Any additional protection is welcome. But based on Apple's careful language, it's best to think of the Watch as a supplement to, not a replacement for, other protections. "We probably need to wait another generation, which is true of all tech," said Jane Salzfass, 73.
The Apple Watch has always measured pulse, and Series 4 adds the FDA-cleared electrocardiogram — a breakthrough for consumer tech. Hold your finger on the round button on the side of the Watch and it will read your heart's electrical signals in about 30 seconds.
But that app won't arrive until later this year, so I couldn't compare it to a hospital-grade monitor.
Apple received FDA clearance for the EKG app as well as the ability to detect irregular heart rhythms. But "clearance" isn't the same as "approval." Apple had to prove safety and performance through clinical validation, but "approval" requires a lot more testing. (A summary of Apple's research released by the FDA shows it claims to detect an atrial fibrillation 99 percent of the time.)
But the FDA lists some important caveats about these functions in its clearance letters to Apple.
It says the irregular rhythm detector isn't for people with atrial fibrillation diagnoses. And both the EKG and heart rhythm function are "not intended to replace traditional methods of diagnosis or treatment."
As the Washington Post has reported, some cardiologists worry people taking Watch EKGs could result in a flood of unnecessary office visits by healthy people.
The heart sensors can let people with heart conditions or anxiety know when they might need to take it easy. Margery Widroe, 80, who's been using a Series 3 Apple Watch for a few months, recounted to our group a recent incident when she was at the grocery store and her Watch alerted her to a high heart rate. She took it as a valuable cue to go home and take her medication. "It could be a major help in your life," she said.
While the Watch will continue to grow as a medical device, it may be more useful now to think of it as a wellness aid.