According to a MetLife study on the oldest baby boomers, 82 percent of this age group wants to remain at home — something commonly referred to as “aging in place.” Aging in place is a significant factor in senior independence. Instead of moving into a senior community such as assisted living or skilled nursing, where care will be provided for them, seniors want to continue living at home and receive in-home care if it becomes necessary. While in-home care is already available, the industry has been starting to shift toward offering more enhanced services in the home that can increase seniors’ privacy while improving their safety. While most baby boomers are not yet in need of long-term care, many members of the generation before them are receiving care in senior communities or in their own homes. Many of them are beginning to benefit from just a portion of the technological advances that boomers will have access to in order to remain at home safely. Some of the technology is available now and is reasonably priced, while other options are still being refined and are still out of reach for many. As with any technology, what’s expensive now will likely go down in price as the technology is perfected and the market starts to see competition, so it’s worth keeping an eye on what’s up and coming that will improve senior independence.
What’s Available Now for the Average Senior
Computers and Internet
While many seniors are very familiar with computers, they may be less comfortable and familiar with the Internet. A 2012 Pew Research study indicates that although Internet use has increased significantly for users age 65-plus over the past 10 years, their 41 percent rate is still significantly lower than the 74 percent rate for users 50 to 64 and less than half the rate of the other age groups. Computers designed for less tech-savvy seniors are becoming more prevalent, offering touch screens, icon-based simplicity, easy-to-use e-mail programs, and easy access to the information they’re most likely to be interested in. There are a variety of companies offering these senior-friendly computers, such as Telikin, MyGait, and In-Touch Tablets, each with its own unique set of features. Many standard tablets can also work well for a senior if there is a family member with the time to help her get started.
Although not specifically designed for senior users, programs like Skype and FaceTime are great platforms to help friends and family stay in touch with seniors they’re not able to visit regularly. Imagine the joy a senior who lives alone would experience when he sees his grandchildren open birthday or Christmas gifts for the first time in years or is able to watch his new great-grandchild take her first steps from the other side of the country. Often senior independence can be maintained with something as simple as having someone check in once a day. Using a video conferencing program to do this can be very cost-effective and can provide the caregiver with more information than a standard telephone call.
Social Networks and Computer Training
There are many generations already using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and many other social networking sites; in fact, seniors over the age of 65 are the fastest growing social media adopters. The oldest seniors in that age group may be the individuals who are most intimidated by computers, and particularly by the Internet or social networks. A new program funded by the AARP Foundation, called Connecting to Community (C2C), provides tools and training to help seniors learn about and tap into the benefits of online social networks. Many of the C2C participants have reconnected with friends from decades ago and have enhanced their connections to adult children and grandchildren by exchanging information, stories, and photos on the sites where those younger generations are already spending time. The ultimate result of programs like this is the ability of senior participants to overcome some of their feelings of disconnect and isolation.
Sensor-based home technology ranges from simple to incredibly elaborate and allows a caretaker to remotely monitor the activities of an at-risk person living alone. Sensors can be placed in a number of places, such as doorways, stoves, beds, toilets, or carpet edges to help caregivers remotely see their loved one’s daily living patterns and ultimately anticipate concerns before they become emergencies. Researchers are even developing smart-home technologies that can identify the patterns and signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease early on, helping families take necessary precautions. Just as consumers can purchase a system that lets them lock their doors, turn on their lights, or activate their security system from a smartphone, they can also do the same for a long-distance relative and monitor his daily activity for signs of potential health issues.
Caregiver Support Programs and Apps
Other systems designed specifically to help remote caregivers monitor the needs of their loved one offer question-and-answer programs that will alert the caregiver if the answers warrant a follow-up. One such system is the Claris Companion. There are also apps like Balance: for Alzheimer’s Caregivers and MorseLife available for mobile devices, which help caregivers manage the often overwhelming job of coordinating care. Since caregiver burnout is one of the leading reasons for senior placement in a long-term care community, any tool that reduces the chances of burnout has a direct impact on the ability of the senior to remain at home.
Telemedicine, or telehealth, refers to devices that monitor various vital signs and report the results to someone — usually a healthcare provider. Home care agencies have used telehealth for many years to manage the care of a remote patient with chronic health issues, and it’s gaining momentum with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Patients who have high blood pressure or diabetes, or who are using diuretics to manage fluid retention can use a telehealth device to monitor themselves in the privacy of their home. The results are sent via the Internet or phone line to the care provider, who can assess whether the results are within normal limits and respond accordingly.
Automatic Turn-Off Appliances
The same products designed for people with fast-paced lives — people who don’t want to worry about leaving the house wondering if they left the iron on — can also bring peace of mind to family members of loved ones beginning to show the signs of early dementia. Coffee pots, teapots, irons, and other devices that turn off automatically can help caregivers know that their loved one will not cause himself unintentional injury by forgetting to turn off a device that can overheat.
Automatic Medication Machines
A number of companies offer automated medication-dispensing machines that are filled by a nurse or family member weekly or monthly. They’re programmed to automatically dispense the medication at the correct dose and at the exact time it should be taken. Many also offer the ability to notify family or health providers if a medication is not taken when dispensed, and some will retract the medication if it’s not taken within a certain time period.
If all the senior needs is medication reminders, there are apps available that provide just that — MedCoach and RxmindMe are two examples.
Medical Alert Systems
The primary benefit of a medical alert system is that the senior can call for help even when she’s not able to reach a phone, but the systems have evolved greatly in the past few years. Some of the wearable devices can now detect when a fall has occurred and automatically alert the listed responders if the senior is unable to push the button to call for help on her own.
What’s Coming in the Future
Robots have been the focus of many a sci-fi movie, but they’re becoming more of a reality in industries like automobile production lines. Amazon has announced its intention to use drones to make some of their deliveries as early as 2015. While it may seem very reminiscent of the Jetsons cartoon, the use of robots as caregivers (or to at least enhance the role of a caregiver) is coming closer to becoming a reality. The health ministry in Japan is exploring the use of robots to offset the needs of their aging population and lack of front-line caregivers. Studies have been conducted in the United States and elsewhere to help understand the reactions of seniors, particularly those with dementia, to robots as caregivers, task prompters, and even companions.
While some of the technology solutions for seniors are not yet available or affordable, a number of them are already helping people stay safe at home. Finding a solution or a combination of solutions that meet the needs of an individual starts with identifying those needs and exploring the potential solutions that could work. It may be as simple as purchasing an automated medication dispensing machine and setting up a medical alert system so that family members are easily notified in the case of an emergency. Technology can help a senior can remain safely at home while the family has peace of mind that her critical needs are being met. Add some vital human-touch elements with regular visits by family and a paid care provider if necessary, and the combination just might mean many years of senior independence at home — which is where we all want to be, no matter what our age.