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5 Ways Technology Can Make Life Easier for Caregivers of Dementia Patients

Wearables, smart homes and other solutions may help, though one size doesn’t fit all


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RAZ MOBILITY, GETTY IMAGES (2), THEORA CONNECT, AMAZON

Everyday technology that people use around the house — including doorbell cameras, smart speakers and wrist-worn trackers — can help those suffering from cognitive decline.

The tech may ease the burden on caregivers, too.

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“Every family caregiver’s number one priority is their loved one’s safety,” says Jennifer Reeder, director of educational and social services for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. “And this is where technology can play an important and helpful role, especially if the caregiver and their family member who is living with dementia don’t reside in the same home.”

No solution works for all Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.

“Dementia-related illnesses affect everyone differently,” Reeder says.

Different stages mean varying abilities

​Early on, those who still possess most of their mental faculties may have an “I-don’t-need-that-thing” attitude, along the lines of an older adult who initially resists wearing a pendant that can summon help in case of a fall or a hearing aid to understand conversation better. As Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia progress, more responsibility shifts to family members and caregivers who must make difficult choices.

Caregivers and patients have different comfort levels with technology. Some know Windows, some Macs, and some have no knowledge of computers — or smartphones. Some live in homes with robust Wi-Fi connections while others are without decent internet speeds. Cost can be a problem. Several solutions aren’t cheap. The good news: Often the most basic products provide the best fixes.

“Simple and clear messages and options are always better,” Reeder says. She mentions a basic universal remote control that a caregiver might set up for a few favorite TV channels. It “gives the person a choice and a level of independence, but not overwhelming or confusing them.”

Among the most popular of the 600 to 800 products sold in The Alzheimer’s Store are radios and music players pared down to a few controls, according to Scott Kochlefl, director of operations for the online store. For example, on the $134.95 One Button Radio, a caregiver can remove the front panel to set the volume and a preferred AM or FM station. Other available products include animated robotic therapy dogs and cats, lockable talking medicine dispensers and talking alarm clocks.

Here are some areas of tech caregivers can look to for help.

1. Try some smartphone apps

Hundreds if not thousands of apps are available in the health area, including some that specifically apply to people dealing with dementia. Searching for “dementia” in the Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store yields apps for brain health games, calendars and clocks, caregiving tips, cognitive impairment tests and directories of services.

The problem is information overload and an inability to tell when apps have been clinically vetted or even need to be.

“Are you going to download 12 of these apps and then see how they work for you?” says Jeffrey Kaye, professor of neurology and biomedical engineering and the director of the Layton Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Oregon Health & Science University. “There’s no easy way to actually figure out what is hopefully going to be helpful for you in this kind of larger available universe.”

Reading reviews, though an imperfect way to determine quality, may give you some sense of a product’s worth, says Kaye, who is also director of the Oregon Center for Aging and Technology (ORCATECH).

2. Smart home devices help with supervision

Most products in the smart home category weren’t designed for people experiencing cognitive decline. Still, appliances with automatic shutoff, carbon monoxide detectors, doorbell cameras, smart locks and smart thermostats can provide peace of mind for caregivers from afar. 

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At home, voice-activated assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant in Echo and Google Home speakers and other devices can answer repetitive questions and give reminders at mealtime. This could include caretaker instructions on where to find food and how long to heat it or activation when it’s time to take medications.

Amazon’s $19.99-a-month Alexa Together subscription, which requires caregivers to have Echo speakers and the Alexa app on their smartphones, lets people keep a watchful eye remotely on patients in cognitive decline. Through the app paired with other sensors, they can be alerted to a fall, determine when a loved one leaves the house, manage shopping lists and more.

Sensors around the home and in other products can alert caregivers to changes in patterns of behavior or when something may be amiss. Has the person taken a spill? Has the refrigerator door not been opened in a while? How much time is the person spending in the bathroom?

Expensive smart refrigerators such as the Samsung Family Hub are equipped with cameras that show their contents. Caregivers can peek inside through an app to make sure their loved one is eating and has enough food.

The fridge is among the products that the Alzheimer’s Foundation has included in a dementia-friendly model apartment it set up.

“I know the door is locked at night. I know who rang the doorbell. I know the thermostat’s not set at 30 degrees or 100 degrees. It’s set at something reasonable,” says Stephen Ewell, executive director of the Consumer Technology Association Foundation.

But Ewell is mindful of the need to balance supervision with privacy. In the early stages of dementia, an older adult doesn’t necessarily want to be watched all the time.

3. Wearables can map out ‘safe zones’

Smartwatches such as Apple Watch, Google Pixel Watch and Samsung Galaxy can detect falls and dispatch SOS alerts if a person is unresponsive. Many wearables include GPS tracking technology that can alert caregivers if a person has wandered off.

With the $247.97 Theora Connect GPS Tracker Watch, caregivers can set safe zones from a smartphone to let them know if their loved one strays. Kochlefl at The Alzheimer’s Store is a fan of a $49.97 locking clasp option for the watch that prevents a person with dementia from removing it.

The watch has a two-way audio connect feature that lets the wearer hear the caregiver’s voice. The person with dementia does not have to push any buttons to talk back.

The Kanega Watch from UnaliWear, billed as a medical alert timepiece with fall detection, medication reminders and round-the-clock monitoring, works off a cellular connection as well as Wi-Fi. A pair of rechargeable batteries are inserted into compartments on each side of the watchband, so a person doesn’t need to remove the watch to swap them out. It costs $299 up front under an annual plan, plus $69.95 a month for monitoring.

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General caveats: “Wearables are great when they’re worn and charged,” Kaye says. But many people don’t like the wristbands. 

Some people who are willing to use wearables may forget to use them or not use them properly. And if they’re taken off for charging, an older adult might not remember to put the smart watch back on.

4. Simple phones, tablets aid in two-way talks

At some point, people with dementia can no longer use the iPhone or Android devices they may have had for years.

Instead, they may be candidates for a device such as the $349 RAZ Memory Cell Phone, a one-touch dial picture phone from Cabin John, Maryland, start-up RAZ Mobility, winner of a 2022 AARP start-up pitch competition. The phone has an always-on screen with up to six named pictures shown at once, each associated with a contact the user can tap to call. It has no keypad.

A caregiver can remotely edit contacts via an iPhone or Android app. Caregivers can place video calls, a feature the person with dementia cannot initiate.

Although not specifically created for older adults with dementia, the Lively Jitterbug Flip2 phone includes a large red emergency response button directly on the keypad along with other large buttons. It connects the person with an around-the-clock agent. Flip2 costs $99.99 with a $19.99-a-month unlimited talk and text plan that includes voicemail and brain fitness games, but you must upgrade to a monthly “preferred” $39.99 plan for the 24/7 urgent response service.

The GrandPad tablet, targeted at people 75 and older, also wasn’t developed for dementia patients. For $95 a month, you get the hardware, access to cellular and 24/7 customer care. A user can connect to family through an encrypted private network, which is meant to be off-limits to spammers and telemarketers. GrandPad sellers include the company itself, Amazon, Consumer Cellular and Walmart.

5. Virtual reality isn’t easy to use

Some older adults have embraced virtual reality (VR) to overcome some of the mental, physical and social challenges that come with aging.  A VR headset shuts out the outside world and immerses the wearer in an alternate reality they typically cannot visit in real life.

A company called MyndVR has a cognitive app in which a person wearing a headset is asked to identify the source of sounds played in a kitchen, such as water running in the sink.

The EVRTalk virtual reality experience from the Council on Aging of Southwestern Ohio is directed at caregivers to train them on challenges they may face. VR sessions address topics such as caregiver burnout, incontinence and medicine management.

However, further expansion of the program is on hold because of how quickly the technology for VR glasses and goggles is changing. The Council on Aging is exploring other opportunities in the space, Communications Director Paula Reichle Smith says.

The barriers in adopting virtual reality technology may be higher than for other areas. Cost, complexity and a person’s resistance to wearing a headset are the biggest, preventing VR from becoming mainstream, says Kaye in Oregon.

“There’s still a large amount of work that needs to be done to have something that is easily applied, effectively helpful and low cost,” he says.

This story, originally published May 1, 2023, has been updated with new prices and other changes.

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