Most of us want to remain at home as we get older, but safety
and health issues and social isolation can interfere with that
plan. A growing number of seniors are turning to state-of-the-art
digital tools -- via smartphones, GPS, voice activation and sensors
-- that enable them to stay put indefinitely.
With "aging in place" technology, you can discreetly keep tabs
on Mom -- tracking her daily activities on a cellphone, tablet or
computer, and getting notified by text or e-mail if something seems
out of the ordinary. Gadgets and apps can remind seniors to take
their medication and let others know if they don't. Besides telling
time, smart watches can provide feedback on one's vitals, such as
blood pressure, that can be relayed to professionals. These new
products are affordable and easy to use.
By 2017, experts expect this market to reach $30 billion. "The
aging-in-place technology field is exploding," says gerontologist
Katy Fike, who co-founded San Francisco-based Aging 2.0 in 2012 to
advise start-ups geared to boomers and seniors. In the past few
years, her company has met with more than 1,000 entrepreneurs in
Chalk it up to longevity, millions of worried long-distance
family caregivers and a looming shortage of professional home
aides. About 10,000 boomers a day are turning 65, and close to half
of women ages 75 and older live alone. Here are some of the
products geared to helping older adults maintain their
Safety and security systems.
PERS, which is an acronym for Personal Emergency Response Systems,
is familiar to many people. You push an emergency button on a key
chain or from a cord around your neck or wrist. Then an operator
assesses the situation and can dispatch help or notify family.
But these medical alert systems are changing. They used to work
only at home with a base station connected to a landline. What's
new is the introduction of m-PERS (the "m" stands for mobile),
which works wherever you are -- on the golf course, out to lunch,
in the garden or visiting the grandkids in another state.
Rita Labla, 79, of Yuba City, Cal., lives alone and drives, but
she struggles with congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease. She has also fallen. "When she's out of sight,
you never know what's going on," says her daughter, Loretta Burke,
61, who lives three miles away.
Last July, Burke gave her mother a GreatCall Splash m-PERS. "We
were all concerned she wouldn't use it. Instead, she has it with
her all the time," Burke says. "It's like her bodyguard."
Labla agrees. "I feel much more secure with it," she says. Labla
knows she can press it if she thinks someone shady is following her
in the parking lot, she gets lost on the road or she has a problem
By checking their smartphones, tablets or computers, Burke and
her siblings can track their mother via GPS. You can order a
or by calling 800-650-5921 ($50 for purchase, $35 activation fee
and monthly service starting at $20).
In the next few months, GreatCall plans to add a feature that
summons help if it detects a fall -- even if you haven't pressed
the button. Already, another go-anywhere medical alert system,
Philips Lifeline's GoSafe
, 800-380-3111), offers a waterproof pendant with fall-detection
capability -- for a one-time fee of $149 plus $55 a month.
, 800-989-9863) has a similar system ($37, plus $50 a month; fall
detection is an extra $10 a month).
Sensors are another way to make sure Mom or Dad is safe at home.
Several wireless sensors that are placed around the house where a
parent goes daily -- perhaps the bed, the refrigerator, a favorite
chair or the bathroom door -- can tip you off if they aren't
Sarah King, 83, lives in a basement apartment of her daughter
Donita Kniffen's home in Dardenne Prairie, Mo. Still, sensors from
, 855-677-7625) have come in handy.
Kniffen, 52, programmed Evermind so she receives a text the
first time her mom's TV, microwave or reading lamp is turned on.
She also gets an alert on her smartphone if none of the sensors has
been triggered during periods of the day when her mother should be
up and about. Instead of calling every morning to make sure her
mother is okay, Kniffen goes on her smartphone to check the
sensors. (The sensors come with a one-time cost of $199, plus a $29
Michael Demoratz, 54, a social worker who lives in Tustin, Cal.,
chose a combination PERS/sensor system from
, 866-574-1784) to keep tabs on his mother, who lives in
Pennsylvania. He placed motion sensors in her living room, between
the bathroom and bedroom, and on the cellar door, which was the
site of two previous accidents.
Demoratz receives a daily e-mail. Green means his mom's activity
is ordinary, yellow signifies out of the ordinary, and red is
abnormal. If she were to press the panic button, Demoratz would get
a text from the company. "My mother feels reassured because she
knows I have been alerted," he says.
BeClose's ability to spot variations in behavior is the system's
most valuable feature, Demoratz says. "If I have objective data, my
mother can't just say she's fine when I call," he says. "I can tell
her I notice she's not getting up or out much and is spending a lot
of time in her chair. Then I can ask why she's so sedentary."
Every year, Demoratz takes a vacation to Europe. "This year,
from my phone, iPad, desktop or anyone's computer, I will know
exactly what is going on with my mom in real time -- whether she is
sitting, in bed, in the bathroom or if she has left the house," he
says. "Talk about peace of mind." (The system costs $499 for the
equipment and $99 a month.)
Taking pills at the right time, often multiple times a day, is
critical to your health. What if you forget? New products can
provide reminders and let loved ones know whether you're on
, 888-757-0711) has just come out with a safety watch that not only
tells time but acts as a medication reminder and a medical alert
system. You attach a sensor to the pill dispenser, and the senior
gets a reminder on a smart watch she wears. Remote caregivers get a
notice by smartphone or computer when the medications are taken or
The system also lets you push a button in an emergency. A
pedometer feature counts your steps, thus giving you feedback on
your activity level. Colleen Sturdivant, who lives in Piedmont,
Cal., says her mother, Jane Kennedy, 76, likes the step-counting
feature. Since her recent hip replacement, the step counter shows
her that she's getting stronger every day by increasing her steps.
Sturdivant likes the feature that notifies her of her mother's
whereabouts, which can be shared with her sister and two brothers
through an online dashboard. (The system costs $50, plus $28 to $35
A more low-tech system is
, $130), a talking clock. You manually program it with your voice
or a loved one's voice, for the day, week or sometime in the future
(perhaps, "time for my afternoon pills").
Mike Gilman, 65, a retired New York state tax collector, takes
eight pills a day at different times. "Rosie is the most fantastic
thing," he says. Besides jogging his memory about his medication,
Gilman uses the device to remind himself when to send birthday
cards to family and friends.
If you want a free app for your smartphone or tablet,
) centralizes information about your medication and other important
information, such as doctor appointments. You can share this
information with family members. You can set daily medication
reminders that buzz your phone, followed up 10 minutes later if you
Keeping in touch.
You might be able to stay in your home, but you can get lonely.
Technology can help you feel connected to friends and family -- and
sometimes even to medical professionals.
With an interactive touch screen from
, 262-338-6147), you can look at a photo of a grandson's Halloween
getup or a video replay of his baseball home run. You can listen to
music, play word games, read the news or surf the Internet. No need
to know how to use a computer.
Randall Schafer, 61, of Houston, Tex., uses his grandCARE system
to Skype with his mother, 90. (She just pushes a button to
videochat.) "My mom is in love with our dog, Daisy," Schafer says.
Her "face lights up" when she sees the schnauzer, he says.
An added feature: The system can transmit health data, from
glucose and blood pressure to weight and oxygen readings. For
example, a blood pressure cuff with a wireless Bluetooth medical
device will record and relay the readings to caregivers. (The
system costs $699, plus $49 a month.)
Another system that offers social opportunities -- as well as
care coordination, calendar sharing and health-data collection --
, 800-815-7829). All the information is on your TV rather than on a
special screen or computer.
You can be watching
on TV and up pops a screen saying your daughter wants to say
goodnight. You can accept and videochat -- or not, if you're
engrossed in the show. An adult child can go to the Independa
caregiver portal via e-mail and send a message or upload photos to
your TV screen.
One feature called "Life Stories" lets parents record their
memories for their adult children. You or your parents can play the
remembrances at any time and e-mail them to other family members.
Independa also has introduced a mobile app for caregivers for the
soon-to-be-released Apple Watch.
The system costs $799 to $1,399, depending on the size of a
special LG smart TV embedded with Independa services. If you have
your own TV with an HDMI connection, which is now commonly used,
you can hook it up to an Independa AnyTV Companion box, which costs
$399. Both systems charge $30 a month.
A unique social engagement tool is the
virtual care companion (
, 855-437-4569), which costs $249 a month. Consider it pet therapy
with a twist. A virtual "talking" dog or cat on a tablet screen
interacts and converses with a loved one. Many people name their
pet, which is operated around the clock by GeriJoy representatives
who work remotely.
To start a conversation, you touch the dog on the tablet screen
and talk. Your pet will "wake up" and start chatting. (Perhaps the
pet will say, "Did you have a good sleep? You look fabulous
today.") When you ask a question, your virtual companion responds
immediately, even if it means the human helper has to look up an
answer on the Internet ("How did the Red Sox do last night?" for
example). Daily conversations and events are kept on a written log,
which the family can access through a secure Web site.
Becky and Craig Jio bought GeriJoy for Craig's mother, Lucy, who
has Alzheimer's disease and lives with them in Santa Clara, Cal.
She doesn't like to leave her room. "GeriJoy is good company,"
Craig, 45, says. She especially loves a silly picture that Becky
uploaded of a man with an ultra long nose and tongue. "When it pops
up, she cracks up laughing," Becky says.
The Jios are convinced that GeriJoy has improved her mood. When
the system was down for a week with hardware problems, Craig says,
"my mother got depressed. Now that it's back, she's happier. That
makes everyone happier."
Coming down the pike.
In the future, a growing number of seniors will be connected
remotely with service providers who will be able to detect changes
in physical and mental health as well as mobility, says David
Lindeman, director of the Center for Technology and Aging, a
research group in Oakland, Cal. "We are in a new era of connected
aging," Lindeman says. "We will be getting more and more
information brought to us in a variety of ways so we can support
our loved ones."
Look for more developments in the "smart home." Entrepreneurs
are working on a carpet woven from optic fibers that analyze your
gait and help predict if you may fall or are physically declining.
Consumer-friendly devices will help long-distance caregivers, with
the touch of a tablet or cellphone, to turn off Dad's stove if he
forgets or to close the blinds.
Also on the horizon is the growth in "wearables," which includes
smart jewelry and clothing with sensors and chips woven into
fabric. The sensors will track movement, collect health data and
transmit to a mobile device.
Don't like the look of today's PERS pendants, wristbands and key
) is introducing products, priced from $29 to $199, that look like
elegant jewelry. The gadget, which is inserted in specially made
bracelets and necklaces, sends notifications, tracks activity and
acts as a safety device.
Sensogram Technologies, based in Plano, Tex., is working on
), a device that you wear on your ear. It captures oxygen
saturation, respiration and heart rate as well as mood. The goal is
to prevent or to catch a problem early.
We will be seeing more social and caregiving applications, too.
Laurie Orlov, founder of Aging in Place Technology Watch (
), believes voice-activated robots might someday be good helpers
and conversationalists. "It is inevitable that companion robots
will learn, adjusting responses to become the companion we need,
responding to our commentary and reminding us to take our
medication so that we can remain independent," Orlov says.