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How a Smart Home Can Help You or a Loved One Age in Place Right Now

Pick devices wisely, let them gather data to reveal a bigger picture of health

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Photo Collage: AARP (Source: Getty Images (9))

Can an internet-connected smart home make it easier for older adults to live independently and simplify care for them?

Until now, adoption of smart home technology among older Americans has been lukewarm at best. Recent leaps, including artificial intelligence, paired with the desire of about 9 in 10 older people to stay in their homes as long as possible, make the question worth asking again.

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Smart home tech encompasses smart:

  • Appliances
  • Cameras
  • Cookware
  • Doorbells
  • Energy systems
  • Garage door openers
  • Lights
  • Mattresses
  • Plugs
  • Security systems
  • Speakers
  • TVs
  • Window treatments

Collectively called the internet of things (IoT), these products are considered intelligent because they connect to your home’s internet and you can control them via smartphone and computer and often by voice. But just because household products make nice with the internet doesn’t always make them more useful.

Lack of simplicity is a big stumbling block

About 1 in 5 respondents 50 and older say they don’t need smart home devices, according to a 2023 AARP survey. Around 1 in 10 expressed no interest at all. Some smart home products were deemed too expensive, too intrusive, too complicated or, to put it bluntly, overkill. 

Consumers who purchase smart home products often don’t wonder whether individual items connect with other devices in their house or whether they might need help getting them to work. The industry is trying to solve this with a technical standard known as Matter, which has support from companies — including Amazon, Apple, Google and Samsung — that are behind the most popular smart home platforms.

“It’s still the same do-it-yourself piecemeal,” says Laurie M. Orlov, an industry analyst in Port St. Lucie, Florida. “You buy one thing and then you buy another thing, and then if you buy too many things, you have to hire [help]. We haven’t moved much past that.” Her Aging and Health Technology Watch website spotlights aging in place

Buyers’ biggest pain point is setting everything up, says Nick Millette, product development merchant and tester at Home Depot’s Hubspace smart home platform.

“This is what I do for a living,” he says. “I’ve got 15 products I tested today and three that I am not able to get connected.”

Home security systems fill a need for older adults

Older consumers are embracing some tech, research by Parks Associates shows. The Addison, Texas, market researchers found that 24 percent of people 65 and older have a home security system, and 34 percent own at least one smart home device besides a smart speaker, such as a video doorbell, smart camera, smart door lock, smart light or smart thermostat.

“The big wrapper is around health, well-being, longevity, connectivity and care coordination,” says Ken Honeycutt, director of commercialization for Samsung Health in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Choose devices that meet specific needs, and you won’t go wrong, says Stacey Higginbotham, a Seattle-area policy fellow at Consumer Reports.

“I want [smart lights] to have circadian rhythms. I want it to work with a motion sensor easily. I want to tie it into security systems,” she says. “Figure out what you want, and then find a system that will do that for you with whatever [smart]phones you have.”

Link devices to build a complete picture

For caregivers and their loved ones, the value of a smart device is its ability to interact with other devices and assemble a big picture of a typical day at home, especially when an older adult lives alone, says Andy Miller, senior vice president for AARP Innovation Labs. Then when something seems off, a caregiver can be alerted. 

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“Oh yeah, yesterday was a tough day for Mom,” Miller says as an example. “She didn’t get out of bed at 8 like she normally does. She got out of bed at 10:30. She went to the bathroom six times yesterday when she normally goes three times. She didn’t open the refrigerator door at all. She didn’t turn the stove on. The TV was on for nine hours yesterday. When we were looking at the ambient sensors, she was sitting on the couch for seven hours. And now you start to get that picture: Oh, we have a problem.”

“What becomes more valuable [with smart devices] is when data reveals behavioral patterns that could alert a caregiver when something seems off.”

— Andy Miller, AARP Innovation Labs

Smart devices aren’t meant to replace communication — a phone call, video call or just stopping by. People need human interaction. But they can be a set of electronic eyes and ears that are less intrusive than the cutting-edge indoor cameras and always-listening microphones of a decade ago.

To showcase some of today’s smart devices and how they can help, let’s take a tour around the house. Some products might have a place in multiple rooms.

Start at the front door with video doorbells, digital locks

Doorbell cameras and smart locks are available at several price points. Video doorbells let you eyeball a visitor by peering at an app on your phone or another connected display. Some let you chat with the person.

You also can tell from afar if a package was delivered. A doorbell camera might even discourage a porch pirate or a burglar. But beware: Some models from lesser-known brands may not be as secure.

Digital smart locks are also about peace of mind, since they let you lock and unlock doors remotely and monitor comings and goings — perhaps of a loved one with dementia who wanders. And smart locks are convenient if you need to issue digital keys to health aides, house cleaners and family to unlock the door during designated times.

Add sensors, smart lights to main living areas

Indoors, a home may be equipped with a collection of IoT products, including motion sensors and smart lights that blend into your environment.

The most common among these devices is a smart speaker. Ask Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant to play music, deliver the weather forecast, answer questions, chat and control lighting or other devices.

You can automate tasks through a smart speaker, though it’s not always simple. You might tell a smart speaker to “start my day” and smart blinds open, traffic and news reports air, and the coffee maker connected to an inexpensive smart plug begins to brew.

Another potentially useful product is a smart thermostat, including models that automatically learn indoor climate preferences over time. When the thermostat detects its house is empty, it may turn on the furnace or air conditioner less often, shaving a few bucks off your energy bill. Since you can control a smart thermostat from anywhere, you can ready the house for your return via an app.

For many people, the core of a smart home is a smart television. Sure, you spend countless hours watching movies, TV shows, live news, sports and myriad streaming options. But you also can use a TV screen with a webcam for family video chats, telehealth calls with your doctor or virtual exercise sessions, or as a hub to control lights, security cameras and other connected gear.

Keep safety first in an older adult’s smart kitchen

Smart speakers are also popular in the kitchen for setting timers, dishing up recipes — viewable on models with screens — or playing music while cooking.

No smart plugs for stoves

Stoves can be a flash point, literally, in an older adult’s house.

A pot boiled dry or a pan with grease left unattended might be smoking yet not fully on fire. A smart smoke detector — available from brands such as Google Nest, Kidde and First Alert Onelink — sounds an alarm and can send alerts to as many smartphones as needed.

At the moment, a smart home can’t connect the dots to enable the next step for safety: A “dumb” stove can’t be shut off remotely. A 15-amp smart plug can turn off a light or a coffee pot, but the electricity required for a range means a bigger, 50-amp plug with no smart versions available.

FireAvert can turn off a stove when a smoke alarm sounds, but it lacks internet connectivity. Smarturns knobs can replace existing knobs on compatible gas or electric stoves and dispatch an alert to a smartphone if a stove has been left on for a designated time and sensors detect the kitchen is empty. But with Smarturns, a stove must be switched off manually.

Expensive smart appliances may be over-the-top luxuries.

Whiz-bang Wi-Fi-connected refrigerators allow contents to be seen in an app if you need a look while at the supermarket. In some cases, they can even suggest recipes based on the ingredients on hand.

Smart stoves will let you or a caregiver shut an oven off remotely. But Orlov is skeptical.

“I don’t think you want a smart oven,” she says. “Let’s think about what could go wrong.”

A less expensive alternative is the motion-sensitive iGuardStove, which connects to an existing appliance and shuts it off when it’s unattended after a set time. iGuardStove, on backorder as the Seattle company prepares a new model due in the fall, can send a smartphone alert when someone enters the kitchen or the auto shutoff feature kicks in.

Microwave ovens may be the safest option for warming or preparing food if the user realizes that placing metal inside it is a no-no. Some smart microwaves, which connect to the internet and can be controlled by a smartphone app, are also convection ovens. Unlike conventional microwaves, they can roast meat and toast food. 

Older adults might not use some of a smart microwave’s features, such as automated cooking programs, but may appreciate that a microwave shuts itself off when its timer is done and beeps a reminder until its door is opened. A smart microwave can be turned off remotely via app if a family member not in the house needs to intervene. And if you decide to use a prepared-meal delivery service, those meals often can be warmed in a microwave.

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Help prevent falls, promote better sleep in the bedroom

Low-intensity smart lights can kick on when a person gets out of bed. And if you take a spill, alerts can be dispatched to loved ones and caregivers.

“One of the biggest challenges we see for older adults is the fear of falls, and a lot of those falls happen at night when you’re getting up to go to the bathroom,” says Steve Ewell, executive director of the nonprofit Consumer Technology Association Foundation.

Smart beds and smart mattresses give a better night’s sleep but often cost thousands of dollars. The beds determine separate, comfortable temperatures for you and a partner; adjust mattress firmness; and report on the quality of your shut-eye come morning, perhaps sharing the data with a health care provider or caregiver.

A bedroom smart speaker plays soothing music, white noise or sleep sounds. A model such as Google’s second-generation Nest Hub speaker employs low-energy radar technology to detect when you went to bed and determine how often you snored, coughed or may have been awakened.

“One of the biggest challenges we see for older adults is the fear of falls. And a lot of those falls happen at night when you’re getting up to go to the bathroom.”

— Steve Ewell, Consumer Technology Association Foundation

Track health data in the bathroom

Even though heated and cooled toilet seats and voice-activated shower temperatures may seem frivolous, some innovations may be more practical, such as smart water sensors that shut off water and alert you if a leak or a constantly running toilet is detected.

Smart scales are useful to track weight and other body measurements and import the data into a health app or share it with caregivers or medical providers.

Higginbotham of Consumer Reports thinks a sensor that indicates how often an older person opens and closes the medicine cabinet or bathroom door is useful because for many folks, “bathrooms feel like a private space.”

Also collecting data discreetly is the battery-powered Casana Heart Seat. The Food and Drug Administration–cleared smart seat can measure heart rate and blood oxygenation when a person sits to use the toilet.

The Rochester, New York, company plans to sell the seat for home use if it receives additional FDA clearance to noninvasively measure blood pressure. This feature, which it hopes is approved before year-end, will allow the seat to be a potentially reimbursable prescribed medical device.

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