Nearly 90 percent of adults over age 50 — across all ages, health-status categories, incomes and races — want to remain at home and age in place, Capital Caring Health, a nonprofit provider of elder, advanced illness and hospice care, found in a recent national survey that it took in partnership with the online health information resource WebMD.
Respondents with fair or poor health and those with household incomes of below $50,000 are less familiar with options they may have, including aging in place and hospice care, the survey, released in May, showed.
“Aging in place is what we want, and we can bolster our ability to do so safely, especially for those living alone, with the right technology in the home at the right time,” says Laurie Orlov, founder and principal analyst at Aging and Health Technology Watch, a market research firm in Port St. Lucie, Florida, that tracks technology trends about older adults.
“Technology enables more effective communication to the services you may need outside the home, including telehealth platforms, services that can bring you food, links to transportation, connecting with other people, staying entertained and helping you learn new things,” Orlov adds. “There has been a big leap forward over the past four to five years.”
Ramon T. Llamas, research director at International Data Corp., a Needham, Massachusetts–based provider of market intelligence, agrees: “Previously, the problem with ‘aging in place’ is someone might feel separated from the world, but technology remedies this by fostering connections to the outside — not just to caregivers but to the services they may [have] to depend on to live on their own terms.
“Thankfully, today’s devices are also much easier to use, to help stay in touch and combat loneliness and get help, if needed, through wearables and other hardware,” Llamas continues.
While far from a complete list, here are seven tech items to help loved ones age in place.
Activity-based sensors around the home can discreetly reassure loved ones that those living alone are going about their daily business and all is OK.
If a change in pattern is detected, a remote family member, caregiver or emergency-response service is alerted via email, phone or text if the at-risk person is doing (or not doing) something.
For example, a small sensor could detect if an older adult hasn’t left the bedroom by, say 10 a.m., and that’s unusual for them, or if Mom or Dad hasn’t opened the fridge door or medicine cabinet in a specified number of hours.
Installation of these sensors, which is typically done by a professional, is often folded into the monitoring cost.
Alarm.com’s Wellness independent living solution integrates a suite of sensors and devices, like its Wellcam camera, with two-way audio and one-way video, and applies artificial intelligence and machine learning to the data generated to proactively detect changes that may suggest risks. The company says it can report changes in activity levels, sleeping and eating patterns, bathroom frequency and medication adherence, as well as emergency situations, like falls or wandering out of the home.
These unobtrusive sensors can go on cabinets, chairs, doors, under bedsheets, windows.
Coupled with Alarm.com’s home security solution, Wellness is typically between $40 to $60 a month, after installation costs (handled by a local service provider), but pricing depends on the service provider and the exact mix of devices and sensors.
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Ideal for aging family members living alone, Alexa Together, which is coming this year, offers many of the same features found in Care Hub, which Alexa Together is replacing. This includes activity alerts and an activity feed, which keeps loved ones in the loop with real-time updates pushed to their smartphone, 24/7 hands-free access to an urgent-response professional emergency helpline and compatibility with third-party fall-detection devices from Assistive Technology Services, Vayyar and other brands.
So your loved one can feel independent, caregivers will be able to remotely set reminders, manage shopping lists and more on a relative's Amazon Echo device when Alexa Together launches later this year. The ability for multiple caregivers to provide support is scheduled to launch early next year.
Alexa Together will be $20 a month or $200 a year after a free six-month trial. Current Care Hub customers will receive a free year of Alexa Together. Amazon says that all U.S. customers, even if they don't sign up for Alexa Together, will be able to set up and use the emergency contact feature.
“And we can’t forget about the importance of reliable high-speed internet,” Orlov says. “Not everyone has broadband for these services, which is a very important consideration, too.”
Apple Watch and Lively
Smartwatches are getting smarter.
Apple Watch SE (from $280), for one, offers fall detection and an emergency SOS feature that can call 911 and notify your emergency contacts if it detects a sudden drop. It also offers fitness detection, a heart-rate monitor, sleep monitoring, voice-activated Siri support, water resistance to 50 meters and optional cellular connectivity, which is usually an extra $10 per month with your mobile phone provider. You can use Apple Watch to pay for items at retail by waving your wrist over a contactless terminal.
The top-of-the-line Apple Watch Series 7 (from $400) has a screen that’s 20 percent larger than last year’s Series 6, yet with narrower bezels, so the watch itself isn’t that much bigger. It's ideal for those living alone and offers additional sensors to help gauge the wearer’s health, including a built-in electrocardiogram, to detect a dangerously high or low heart rate and irregular heart rhythms, and a monitor to assess the amount of oxygen carried in the body by sending light into your wrist.
If you prefer that your loved ones have access to a live operator in case of a fall or other emergency, there are services that work with Apple Watch, such as the Lively app (formerly GreatCall and owned by Best Buy).
You’ll have access to live agents you can talk to in an emergency, 24/7 access to a registered nurse or doctor for medical advice, and the option to stay connected with friends and family through the watch — plus, if desired, you can allow select people to know of your activity and whereabouts — for $30 per month with a two-year commitment.
Oculus Quest 2 and Rendever
This may seem like an old choice, but virtual reality headsets can be a powerful tool for those living alone, Llamas says: “You put on these lightweight headsets and can instantly play 18 holes of golf, as if you’re on a real course, for when you want to get out of your four walls but might not be able to. And it’s not just an immersive gaming platform, but an experiential thing, too.”
Oculus Quest 2 ($300 for the 64-gigabyte version or $400 for the 256GB model), for example, is easy to set up and use, as you don’t need to plug the headset into a PC, game console or smartphone. After placing the white headset over your face (it works with glasses, too), you are transported to a digital world, complete with 360-degree visuals, tied to head tracking, which means wherever you turn your head in real life — up, down, side to side, or even looking behind you — it’s as if you’re looking at this virtual world with your own eyes.
And it doesn’t stop there. Audio is also “spatialized” in a VR world; thus, you can hear sounds all around you. What's more, Oculus Quest 2 includes controllers for you to “touch” content that isn’t really there, and with some experiences, you simply use your hands to reach out and interact.
Llamas also cites Rendever, a virtual reality platform for older adults that has applications such as “customized reminiscence therapy,” to allow users to take a stroll down memory lane. Rendever is typically sold to senior living communities. By folding in home movies, photos and other media, it enables people to have experiences like revisiting their childhood home or a town they grew up in or attending their wedding all over again.
The VR headsets are networked, so all users view the same experience, but each individual controls what they are looking at inside the experience. Afterward, the participants can talk about what they've just been through.
Video chatting, perhaps over a meal with a friend or family member, is a great way to stay in touch.
The new Portal Go ($200) from Facebook is a 10-inch display you can bring to rooms throughout your home. The first video calling device from the company, it has a built-in rechargeable battery. It’s scheduled to be available this fall.
Make calls over some of today’s most popular platforms (Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Zoom) with a smart camera that automatically pans and zooms to always keep you in frame. If someone else walks into the room, the camera widens to bring them into the picture.
Many older adults and their friends are already on Facebook, Llamas says, “so products like the Portal family make it easy to connect with one button or your voice. It’s a great way to stay in touch with audio and video — the closest thing to being there in person.”
There are no subscription costs for Portal Go. Other features include an integrated Alexa assistant to ask questions or control your smart-home gear; high-fidelity audio, to fill a room with music or podcasts; and optional fun filters and background effects, to spice up your conversations.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correctly reflect when caregivers will be able to remotely set reminders.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.