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New Technology Could Allow You or Your Parents to Age at Home

Devices give older people the opportunity to avoid or delay the nursing-home decision

Technology for Aging Population, Life Saving Devices

Can new technology allow you to remotely monitor the care of your loved one who is happily aging in place? — Mark Hooper

En español | Phil D'Eramo used to call his parents four or five times a day to make sure they took their medication. An only child from upstate New York, D'Eramo was worried, especially about his 89-year-old father, who has Alzheimer's disease. Were Mom and Dad eating often enough? When his father went out for short drives, was he getting home safely?

But D'Eramo has found peace of mind in a sleek system called Lively. It has six sensors that D'Eramo has placed on his parents' pillboxes, the refrigerator, the microwave, the bathroom door and his father's key chain.

Now he logs onto a website to check their activity, captured via cellular connection, and remotely monitors their medication. He sees the number of times Mom opens the refrigerator, and when Dad goes into the bathroom or heads out the door. The company can alert D'Eramo by text, email, Web or phone if something is out of the ordinary.

"Using this new technology allows me to feel emotionally confident and secure that my parents can stay in their home longer," said D'Eramo, 44, a printing company salesman.

A dazzling array of new technology is giving older people more confidence in their ability to live alone, and it's helping many families avoid the wrenching decision to move an aging parent from his or her home to a nursing facility. "Smart" technology such as sensors, voice activation, GPS, Bluetooth, cellular connectivity via mobile phones, smartphone monitoring apps and sophisticated computers are making aging in place a viable option for an increasing number of people.

"Technology is allowing me to stay on my own as long as I can — I would like to die right here in my condo," said Phyllis Bek-gran of Venice, Fla., who turns 90 this month.

There are devices to track medication and Alzheimer's wandering, activity — or inactivity — in the house, falls and real-time health information. With mobile push-button personal emergency response systems, called PERS, and GPS location tracking, you can monitor parents or aging friends at home, or while they play golf or go on long walks.

"We've entered the era of low-cost, miniaturized, technological capabilities that enable smarter caregiving and greater independence," says Laurie Orlov, an aging-in-place technology analyst. It's currently a $2 billion industry, and Orlov expects it to rise to $30 billion by 2020.

Katy Fike, an engineer and gerontologist, has met with "over a thousand entrepreneurs from around the world" since cofounding Aging2.0 less than two years ago. The San Francisco-based business advises start-ups in the aging and boomer fields. Fike is seeing a lot of what she calls "connected independence" technologies, which include activity sensors that give adult children insight into their parents' daily activities and tools that let family caregivers be part of doctors' appointments remotely.

Bek-gran is one of the 40 percent of U.S. adults age 85-plus who live alone (as do one-third of those 65-plus). With more than 4 in 10 U.S. adults caring for an adult or child with major health issues, and 5 million to 7 million long-distance caregivers, the potential tech market is vast.

And just wait for the deluge of boomers who will need care.

"Device stigma" is also vanishing. In some cases, the tracking devices are becoming cool. A child might have a GPS watch that keeps tabs on him in the mall, while adults proudly sport activity wristbands to track their exercise and food. So what's the big deal about Grandpa wearing a GPS watch or pendant if he tends to wander or fall? So far, the government and insurance companies have balked at paying for some of the devices. "While Medicaid may reimburse for some aging-in-place technologies, Medicare, unfortunately, does not," says Majd Alwan, executive director of the nonprofit Leading Age Center for Aging Services Technologies.

But that hasn't stopped the boom in new devices, as more and more people and families embrace the lifestyle choices they offer.

1. MedMinder

Who uses it: Laura Reeves' father-in-law, who has Alzheimer's disease, takes 18 pills a day. He had been skipping some doses or popping too many. "We didn't want to take his independence away but had to protect him," says Reeves, who moved with her husband from Portland, Ore., to Green Forest, Ark., to be near his parents. Skipping doses or taking too many pills, at the wrong time or not at all, has serious consequences. Many older people need multiple medications multiple times a day; a memory issue compounds the task.

What it is: A digital pill dispenser that looks like a regular seven-day model. One type is locked until it's time for medication; the other is unlocked.

How it works: A caregiver fills the medicine tray that goes into the device. The adult child logs onto the Web, remotely programs the schedule and can see if the user has complied. The dispenser flashes (if locked, it unlocks) when it's pill time, then beeps if the medicine's not taken. Still no luck? A prerecorded voice from, say, a grandchild, reminds Grandma to take them. If she doesn't, she gets a call, and a family member receives an email, text or call. The system helped Reeves' father-in-law take his medications on time, and his health improved dramatically.

2. Reminder Rosie

Who uses it: Mike Beadles' mom, 85, who has Parkinson's disease and dementia, lives with him in Lawton, Okla. She finds her son's voice on the clock soothing. Now Mike, 61 and a disabled vet, is using the low-tech gadget, too. "Rosie reduces my stress because I don't have to be nervous either one will miss a dose," says Beadle's wife, Heyyoung, who is 43.

What it is: A voice-activated talking clock that tells you to take your medicine at a certain time. You can use it for other reminders, too (feed the cat, take a short walk).

How it works: A family member programs the clock (perhaps "I love you, Mom. It's time to take two blue pills and one yellow pill"). Once the medicine is taken, the person either says "reminder off" or touches it to turn it off.

3. Philips Lifeline With AutoAlert

Who uses it: Telling her parents they needed an emergency button "was a hard conversation to have," says Susan Morrell, 50. "Nobody likes to admit they're getting older and need help." But she and her five siblings had that conversation last year when her father, Larry Beighey, 75, and her mother, Carole, 76, who uses a walker and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), both wound up in the hospital at the same time. Now fully recovered, they use personal emergency response devices in their homes in Amelia Island, Fla., and Hubbard Lake, Mich.

What it is: A personal help button for home use that is worn around the neck or wrist and can detect if you've fallen.

How it works: The base station is plugged into the wall. Sensors in a button are connected wirelessly to the base station and distinguish between a fall and other movement. If it senses a fall, you're connected to the response center.

4. GrandCare Systems

Who uses it: Gladys Jules lives in Atlanta and has used GrandCare to check on her aunt and mother in South Carolina and to keep them socially connected. Jules' daughter recently had twins and streams daily photos to her grandmother. Last September, Jules, 62, had colon surgery and now also uses GrandCare daily. She takes biometric readings, organizes her prescriptions and stores her medical information for her kids "just in case."

What it is: A multipurpose system that tracks daily activity, has medical monitoring (glucose, oxygen, blood pressure, weight) and can display anything: diets, discharge plans, exercises. An interactive touch screen lets Dad watch videos, view family or Facebook photos, listen to music, play games, read the news and video chat with family.

How it works: It uses an Internet connection that communicates with wireless sensors you've placed around the house. Caregivers log on to a website to see their loved one's activity, write them messages and make rules ("Alert me when ...").

5. GreatCall 5Star Urgent Response

Who uses it: Faith Simon's father started falling, and her mother has vision problems and can't use the phone. They were an hour away in Auburn, Calif. So she signed them up for an urgent response system. Her dad, now deceased, "pressed it a dozen times," says Simon. Her 96-year-old mother has yet to trigger it, but Simon says "it gives me peace of mind."

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What it is: A mobile personal emergency response system for use at home or while traveling.

How it works: GPS technology allows CPR-trained agents to find location and assess the situation.

6. MobileHelp

This company has an on-the-go mobile PERS device with GPS satellite location tracking as well as an in-home base station. Press the help button and, after the response team seeks medical help, it calls and emails your family and tells them where you are, including the hospital. In January, MobileHelp unveiled a fall-detection system that gets you help even if you're unable to push a button or speak.

7. Connect America

Through a base station in the house, this PERS summons help from a monitoring team, informing EMTs of existing medical conditions. The company also offers a mobile PERS that travels with you outside your home, connecting your SOS to 911 or a family member.

8. Life Alert

Remember "I've fallen and I can't get up?" This is that company. You wear a pendant or wristband that has a help button. An interesting feature: Life Alert will program your own cellphone so that it speed-dials the monitoring center. There's a special app for smartphones.

Sally Abrahms writes about boomers and aging. She is based in Boston.

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