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Today's Smart Home Tech Can Help You Age in Place

Experts say new products can give you convenience, safety

spinner image Woman changes ceiling lights on smart home device
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Your most tedious household chore — changing trash bags, restocking toilet paper — one day could become a thing of the past.

That's because household upkeep is getting automated thanks to smart appliances and fixtures that boast more functionality than ever before, many of them on view this week at CES, the sprawling Las Vegas electronics trade show that the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) puts on each January.

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This year, household heavyweights such as Kohler, LG and Samsung are showcasing their latest wares alongside dozens of other exhibitors. Toronto-based Knectek Labs, earned an innovation award for a trash can called Townew that seals and changes its own bags. Meanwhile, Procter & Gamble's Charmin debuted a prototype “RollBot,” a Bluetooth-enabled bathroom assistant that delivers extra toilet paper in times of need.

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The Charmin RollBot debuted at CES this week.

But the expo's buzziest smart-home trend didn't have to do with individual gadgets so much as the promise that, in the future, entire networks of devices — from smart thermostats to voice-controlled faucets — will work seamlessly to keep your household running smoothly. That principle is already at work in the latest generation of smart fridges, which can analyze their contents and make shopping recommendations, or in face-scanning doorbells that recognize welcome guests.

"When we look at solutions like this, we are finally fulfilling the promise of smart homes, which is creating intelligent living spaces that take care of us, instead of the opposite,” Steve Koenig, CTA vice president of research, said at a media kickoff event for the show that draws more than 170,000 attendees each year.

That promise is especially attractive for the three-quarters of Americans who, according to AARP research, want to remain in their homes as they age.

But don't plan on ditching your fridge or buying a bathroom robot just yet. When it comes to aging in place, technology experts say that widely available devices like smart speakers and security systems are still among the most helpful of all.

Smart-tech picks for a safe, secure home

"Aging in place is all about maintaining independence and reducing social isolation,” says Laurie Orlov, founder of market research firm Aging in Place Technology Watch. She was at CES this week to speak about voice technology and health care.

Part of staying independent is staying safe, whether from intruders or threats such as fire and flooding. That should be top of mind for older adults, Orlov says, calling home security systems “mandatory.”

Safety and convenience have long been priorities for aging-in-place advocates, including AARP founder Ethel Percy Andrus. In 1961, she debuted a model "House of Freedom" at the first White House Conference on Aging. It boasted universal design features still worth adopting, like no-slip floors and master light switches throughout the home.

Today's smart security systems, available from companies such as ADT, SimpliSafe and Vivint, can be managed with a smartphone app — helpful if you want to disarm the front-door alarm from the driveway — and are also smart-speaker compatible, meaning you can control them using voice commands when you're at home.

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Other safety upgrades now on the market include these:

• Smart smoke detectors that issue text alerts and helpful voice instructions in case of emergency

• Leak-detection sensors and automatic water shutoff valves for flood prevention. One such system on display at CES from will be available later this year.

• And video doorbells that enable you to remotely screen anyone who comes knocking.

Upfront costs for those sorts of upgrades can run several hundred dollars, but it's possible to benefit from smart-home connectivity and convenience for far less. Smart plugs are available for around $20 and let you use voice commands or a smartphone app to turn things on and off, such as a lamp or coffeemaker. Just insert the new plug into your existing outlet, then plug your appliance back in.

To use smart home tech to minimize social isolation, Orlov says something as simple as talking with a smart speaker can help combat loneliness, which affects an estimated 1 in 3 U.S. adults age 45 and older. A smart speaker, also called a voice assistant, also is a helpful way to control your other smart home devices, especially if mobility or dexterity is a concern.

"A lot of people think of these devices as friendly members of their home,” she says. “It creates an opportunity to hear the sound of your voice.”

Choosing technology that's right for you

One pitfall to avoid when purchasing smart home devices, either for yourself or a loved one, might be deemed “the box problem,” something that research scientist Chaiwoo Lee of the MIT AgeLab has encountered among older adults in particular.

"We [often] see when we go to people's homes to do interviews and do studies that there are a lot of boxes,” which either contain products that never were opened or gadgets that people tried but ultimately abandoned, says Lee, who spoke this week at CES on a panel about smart homes and health.

One reason for the box pileup could be that one-off smart appliances — like a toaster or a microwave — don't address people's needs, especially when it comes to aging in place. Older adults say safety and security are the top benefit of smart-home technology, followed by saving energy, according to a 2016 study from the MIT AgeLab and the Hartford in which Lee was not involved.

No matter what devices you choose, Lee and Orlov note some best practices for smart-home success. First things first: Make sure your home internet connection is up to the task since the various devices need to connect to a high-speed wireless network, Orlov says.

If you're buying a new gadget in store, she recommends asking the sales associate any questions you have about functionality before you bring it home. If data collection is a concern, get familiar with how to adjust your device's privacy settings.

Finally, as you build a smart home ecosystem, Lee notes the importance of something called “interoperability,” whether your devices are compatible with one another and how you'll control them all — through a smart speaker with voice commands, a separate smart home “hub” device, or apps on your smartphone.

And if you're feeling overwhelmed from the sheer number of so-called smart devices out there, the experts are, too.

Lee says she's working on a study to help develop a more precise vocabulary around smart home technology because “right now, it's really everything.”

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