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Staying Connected to Those Who Care

Gadgets both simple and advanced can extend an independent life at home for the aged or ailing

Growing older in the comfort of your own home—it’s what the overwhelming majority of us wish for. Remaining at home as long as possible is a goal for 89 percent of people 50 and older, a recent AARP study found. And the longer we live, the stronger that desire becomes: 95 percent of us 75 and older want to stay put. Fortunately, we usually can—with help from family and friends and, increasingly, technology that brings elders and their faraway caregivers closer together.

It all started with the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell’s invention was the great leap forward in remote care, connecting people in need and those who could help them. Today, the phone is still central, but add wireless communications and computing power and you have a new generation of gadgets that can summon aid, alert people to take their meds, help caregivers keep tabs on an older family member’s movements, and let doctors watch vital signs from afar.

“The ability to monitor a relative’s well-being remotely through these devices is groundbreaking,” says Peter Bell, who heads the National Aging in Place Council. “They can give an adult child peace of mind, knowing some risks associated with aging can be addressed, such as falling—which is the big one—or not taking medication or forgetting to eat.”

And the technology keeps getting better. New to the U.S. market is GlucoPhone from HealthPia America, a cell phone that diabetics can use to read their blood glucose levels and transmit them to their doctor.

“The next five to ten years will jump-start what I like to call Aging 2.0,” says Majd Alwan, who directs the Center for Aging Services Technologies, a nonprofit organization that promotes innovation. “Technologies available in bits and pieces now will converge so that seniors, their families, and health care providers will be completely connected. Your bed will be not simply a place to sleep but also a means to measure vital signs and relay them to your doctor. And nearly everyone will have an all-purpose emergency device.”

The most advanced systems show up in homes now when nursing agencies install them for those home from the hospital. The patient puts on a blood pressure cuff or steps on a scale, then wireless transmitters do the rest, helping caregivers keep a close watch.

You can’t buy such monitoring off the shelf yet, but a consortium of manufacturers, health care providers, and communications companies is working out technical standards that will connect a range of monitors to PCs and cell phones. “Home-based monitoring will be widely available within three years,” says David Whitlinger, who heads the effort.

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