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The Caregivers' High-tech Gift List

The end-of-year holidays provide opportunities to relax and spend time with family and friends. For adult children who are caregivers, this period provides an excellent opportunity to see how Mom and Dad are getting along, and if there is anything that can be done to make their lives easier.

Many families also exchange gifts this time of season, so I’d like to describe some electronic gadgets and devices—from very affordable to expensive—that you can give loved ones to increase their safety and comfort and offer you greater peace of mind. The items range from the simple to the futuristic in terms of technological sophistication. I hope you see something that might make an appropriate gift for someone in your care.

Microchips in Our Lives: Digital technology is everywhere, and it is becoming more affordable for many households. Whether in a computer or laptop, a personal digital assistant, or a cell phone, digital devices hold tremendous power to connect us to resources and people. The business, home and social technology that we often take for granted can seem foreign and scary to people not accustomed to using it every day.

Sending a parent a Web cam in the hopes that he or she will set it up and chat every day with you or the grandchildren might be unrealistic. To help your loved one become comfortable using technological resources, such as e-mail, voice, and video over the Internet or mobile text messages, consider giving him or her a gift certificate for an introductory lesson.

Senior centers, community colleges, and computer stores often schedule beginner classes on popular computer programs. Local businesses that specialize in technology assistance offer one-on-one instruction in the home. The key is to make sure the class is geared to the recipient's technological skills and uses the same equipment or software version as the user has.

Gadgets and Gizmos: Older adults age very differently, so I’m going to describe several different products that might be applicable to your loved one’s situation. These gifts have the potential to simplify their lives and provide you with a greater sense that they are safe. There are a couple of Web sites that I recommend if you want to furthur explore these and other gifts: and

Land and Mobile Phones: Some phones have small keys that can be difficult for older adults to push or see. There are a number of big-button phones on the market that are much easier to use; others have back-lit numbers to help with vision. In addition, many have programmable features that allow for a single button to be pushed that connects your loved one to you, an emergency provider, or another family member or friend.

For caregivers with loved ones who have memory problems, there are even phones that have spaces for pictures you can place by each speed-dial codel. So when your loved one wants to call you, he or she can simply push the button with your picture next to it to call you. Other phones have voice-activated features, so all Mom has to say is your name and the phone dials the number. The bottom line: The easier it is to make the call, the more likely your loved one will stay in touch with you.

Housekeeping Help: For some, keeping up with housework can get to be a big problem. But technology is offering us solutions here as well. At many big box retailers, robotic cleaners are available that can vacuum and wash floors. They aren’t as charismatic as Rosy on “The Jetsons,” but they do the job and may help prevent falls. These tools will be just as popular with college-age students as well as older adults!

Reading Material on Demand: Many older adults love to read. Electronic book readers are devices that charge a fee to wirelessly download the latest bestseller or classic novel straight to the machine. These portable readers allow the user to set the size of the text to match their visual needs, and pages are turned with the simple toggle of a switch.

Tracking Medications: Taking over-the-counter and prescription drugs are a part of everyday life that helps us manage chronic conditions. Keeping track of all our medicines can be difficult, but there are many devices that can help prevent confusion. First, there’s the simple pillbox that can be filled weekly. There are more sophisticated ones that you or your loved one can fill and then it electronically dispenses all of their pills with the touch of a button. Some even have timers that alert your Mom or Dad that it’s time to take their medications.

Personal-Response Systems: This technology has been around for a while. The transmitter, which can be leased or purchased, is worn as a watch, bracelet or necklace, and with the push of a button a loved one can be connected to a call center. Service options include the immediate notification of neighbors, local public safety officials, or even you via e-mail or phone.

Alert Systems: It is great to have visitors, but if you are worried that your parents can’t hear the doorbell or a knock, you can install signals to trigger flashing lights—including existing house lamps—to alert your loved one that someone is at the door.

Home safety, fire and carbon monoxide monitoring is obviously important and, again, depending on the provider options you choose, you can be alerted when any issue arises. Remember, a security system needs to be armed and disarmed, so make sure that your loved one understands how to operate it.

There are a number of high-tech home monitoring systems that can tell you what’s going on in a house without you even being there. Features include monitoring to determine whether your loved one has gotten out of bed, the refrigerator has been opened on any particular day, the stove has been left on for longer than needed, and the house temperature is too cold or too hot.

Obviously there are privacy issues with this sort of monitoring, but it may be an appropriate use of technology depending on the wishes and abilities of your loved one.

If home-monitoring technology sounds like it might be a good fit for your family members, consider having a discussion with them. In a recent AARP study of people age 65+, 56 percent of adults said they would be willing to use activity sensors in their homes, and 52 percent agreed to use technology to monitor lights, temperature, and appliances in their homes. So many older adults are open to embracing these technologies because they see tangible benefits in their quality of life.

Staying Mobile: There are a tremendous number of mobility devices that can help people who have trouble getting around in their house. From scooters to stair-lifts, these devices can give older adults a greater sense of independence.

If you are helping provide care for a person with any dementia, global-positioning-satellite (GPS) technology can help locate any person who is wearing a transmitter. Many of these transmitters now look like ordinary watches and relieve some of the stigma people may feel when wearing one.

These devices can even be programmed to create a “safe” zone. It can be the yard, the neighborhood, whatever you agree on is appropriate. If the person leaves this zone, the device will trigger a call or e-mail to you and you can check in with them to see if she is all right. More concierge-level services are available, but the bottom line is that for those with dementia, this kind of device can give him greater confidence as he moves around the community safely.  The Alzheimer’s Association is a good resource for more information on these devices.

The Futuristic—Not Yet Available in Stores: Robotics hold the potential to assist our aging loved ones in significant ways. In Japan, an electronics company is developing a robotic skeleton that can be strapped on to a person’s arms and legs. Sensors embedded in the skeleton then react to nerve impulses to help move the individual’s arms and legs. In a recent USA Today story, an elderly man with Parkinson's walked for the first time in two years with the help of this technology. There is no question that this kind of innovation will eventually become more and more a part of our everyday lives.

Relish the Moment: This can be a great time of year for families and friends. I hope you connect with those that you love and have a great time remembering the past, enjoying the present, and planning for the future. If one of these gifts makes sense for your loved one, consider that technology can enhance his or her life while it improves your peace of mind.

No gadgets can replace the human touch, but many hold tremendous potential to assist in providing quality care for those we love. Enjoy the holidays.

All the best,


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