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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.

For those in the market for high-tech help today, the quick guide below is a start. A little gadgetry can go a long way to answering some needs. For more advice, consult a doctor, your Area Agency on Aging, or a geriatric-care manager, a professional who’s versed in how to encourage older folks’ independence by keeping them connected.

SOS BUTTONS            


One third of older adults suffer a fall each year. About a fourth of those who fall lose some independence due to injury.


Remember “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”? That line from a TV ad for the Lifecall medical-alert system became fodder for comedy almost 20 years ago. But now that about a third of older folks live alone—11 million Americans over 65—the emergency pendant is far from a joke. It’s more like the herald of a lifestyle revolution.


While adding grab bars and night-lights or using a walker can reduce the likelihood of a fall, any adult who wants added security should consider an SOS button. It’s essentially a wireless hotline to help. You wear the call button around the neck or wrist or clipped to clothing. If injured or ill, press it to reach a 24-hour dispatcher who will notify a relative, a caregiver, or 911, as needed.

There are many brands on the market, and service plans vary, so it pays to compare. Philips Lifeline costs up to $75 initially, plus $1 a day for monitoring (800-543-3546; Rescue Alert lets you rent or buy; monthly rental is $29 (800-688-9576; Walgreens has Ready Response, which is $35 a month after an initial $35 fee (866-310-9061;, search for “Ready Response”). ADT Companion Service is $99 for setup, plus $35 a month—and less for AARP members (800-209-7599; or

A few insurers cover some services when they’re doctor-prescribed. Your doctor or local Area Agency on Aging may have information on subsidized fees for low-income users.



Up to 40 percent of nursing home admissions result from an inability to take medicines at home unsupervised.


Pill boxes, pagers, vibrating watches, and dispensers that talk to you or alert a caregiver are all options for the common problem of forgetting to take a medication—or not remembering whether you already took it.


You can find dozens of variations on the theme at E-Pill Medication Reminders (800-549-0095; and (877-367-4382). For example, the Multi-Alarm Pill Box and E-Z Set Timer ($49 from E-Pill) allows up to 37 daily alarms. For a less hectic schedule, the MedCenter talking pillbox, about $70, organizes a month’s worth of pills and alerts you four times a day (866-600-3244; Perhaps the most expensive is the MD.2 Monitored Automatic Pill Dispenser ($899 from E-Pill), which both tells you when to take a dose and reports to a caregiver if you miss one.

For those who don’t want the chore of loading those dispensers, the latest electronic reminders use cell phones and e-mail or piggyback onto medical-alert systems. OnTimeRx will send you e-mail, phone, cell phone, and pager alerts for scheduling all types of reminders—daily medications, monthly refills, doctor and dentist appointments, or other events, for $10 to $30 a month (407-843-8966;

Rescue Alert monitors your pillbox directly. A transmitter in the dispenser alerts a dispatcher if the lid isn’t opened within 15 or 30 minutes. There are several rental and purchase plans (800-688-9576;



About 7 million adults live at least an hour from a parent they’re caring for, the National Institute on Aging estimates.


Rather than your calling Mom hourly to check in, monitors around the home can discreetly reassure loved ones she’s carrying out her daily routine. These aren’t spy cameras but unobtrusive motion detectors. For a sense of togetherness, cameras attached to your computer or TV set let you visit with family via the Internet.


Living Independently Group’s QuietCare Plus combines a medical-alert SOS button, motion detection to see whether Mom left the bedroom at the usual hour, and monitoring that includes reporting whether the house is too warm or too cold ($199 for installation, plus $99 a month). All the information, transmitted wirelessly to a dedicated phone line, also appears on a password-protected website a caregiver can check anytime, (877-822-2468;

Logitech’s QuickCam webcams, starting at $30, are easy to install, include a headset, and work with free instant-messaging software and Web phone services such as Skype (800-231-7717; With AttentiveCare, elders don’t need to be tech-savvy to visit by computer. For a $198 setup fee and $58 a month, relatives or caregivers can videoconference and make any sound and picture adjustments remotely for the older family member (888-317-7702;

Beamer TV, a set-top device with built-in camera, works through your TV’s RCA video jack and your phone line, all for $80 (877-963-8383;

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