The utility of connected home technology for the elderly is growing, especially while natural language controls and internet of things smart home devices lower the barriers to usage.
As people age, they face new challenges. These range far beyond merely keeping track of medications or the classic “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” scenarios of 1990s infomercials. The first Baby Boomers reached the age of 65 in 2011, and the growth of this group will have a major effect on the products and technology needed in the home. Today about 49 million people in the U.S. are over the age of 65, and this group is expected to reach over 98 million by 2060. That immense number will represent nearly one-quarter of the country’s entire population.
Although this population plans to retire later and stay more active, they need specific products and services to help them achieve these goals. Life expectancy is increasing, and 42 percent of women ages 75 to 84 now live alone. Additionally, that figure rises to 56 percent for women aged 85 and older (About ¾ of older people living alone are women, according to Merck Manual).
Smart home technology is usually associated with younger, more sophisticated homeowners, but its utility for the elderly is only going to increase. These older consumers will come to rely heavily on these devices, and the devices will, in turn, enable unprecedented levels of self-sufficiency. The majority of older people do not want to leave their homes. One man, quoted by the National Institute on Aging, expresses the sentiment clearly: “I’ve lived here 40 years. No other place will seem like home.” Furthermore, gerontechnology researcher Diane Cook points out, “Individuals don’t want to leave their home even if they live in a rural area and don’t have easy access to health care or family members… Studies show that when they do – particularly against their will – that move is often followed by cognitive and physical decline and death.”
With today’s growing IoT market, numerous devices are available to help the older generation live independently. Below, we’ll take a look at some of the standouts in this new area of technology.
One hundred thousand deaths each year in the U.S. are traceable to the fact that people don’t take their medications on schedule, according to a recent NPR report. There are a variety of devices that help people remember to take their pills. Smart pill bottles from manufacturers Pillsy and Adheretech provide reminders to a patient either through notifications on their phone or a flashing reminder light on the bottle itself. Unfortunately, early user feedback shows that the reminder alone isn’t reliably effective at getting users to take their meds more regularly.
The Tricella pillbox goes a step beyond reminders and includes family in the medication regimen, alerting a caregiver if the box’s owner hasn’t taken medications on schedule. The smart device also maintains an electronic medication log and shares this log with the user’s physician. The sensors in the pillbox include a “wrong pill alert,” so that family members at a distance can be confident their loved one is getting the correct medication.
Monitoring elders’ welfare is high on the priority list for many families. Of course, there are increasingly sophisticated video camera systems, many of which even use infrared to capture images in the dark. These systems can be effective, but many older people understandably object to video cameras watching them all day. There is a point where personal safety gives way to an unpleasant feeling that family members are “snooping.”
Smart sensors offer a viable substitute for intrusive video monitors. Occupancy sensors use the same technology as burglar alarms and can send remote information about all movements within the house. More sophisticated systems can even notice deviations from normal routines and send family members notices: “It’s 10:00 am, and your mom, who’s usually up and about by 8:00, hasn’t left her bedroom. Would you like to check on her?” These sensors can also trigger light sources so that the older person never has to turn off lights and won’t risk a fall in an unlit room.
Motion sensors are useful as long as the person is at home, but they won’t help if the person leaves their dwelling. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 3 out of 5 people with dementia will wander away from their homes at some point. Those who are not found within 24 hours have a 50 percent chance of suffering serious injury or death. This possibility naturally causes family members enormous worry. It’s one of the most common reasons that older people are removed from their homes and placed in institutional care. Current location tracking technology provides an elegant solution that can greatly extend the length of time that people can safely live at home.
While tracking technology can take many forms, a wristwatch is familiar to many older people, and so a tracking locator watch, such as that made by Bluewater, is reassuring to everyone. Caregivers are alerted if a confused person leaves a designated “safe zone.” After that, the app provides updates on the person’s location through the cellular network and a GPS receiver. LOK8U makes another popular wristwatch locator. It has a portable receiver, so the “safe zone” can be taken along if the wearer is visiting someone. The device also displays the person’s location on Google Maps, which anyone can access from a computer or mobile device.
While the tracking devices mentioned above relay information about someone’s whereabouts without any input, medical alert devices allow the older person to quickly summon help when they need it. The Lively mobile device functions as a simple wearable cell phone. Worn on the wrist or on a lanyard around the neck, the device has an emergency alert button that the wearer can push if they need help. Agents who answer the call button speak directly with the device users by way of an integrated cellular radio. Depending on the situation, these responders can then contact a family member, an ambulance, or any other type of help as needed. The accompanying app allows agents and family members to see the location of the device at any time, while motion sensors will detect a fall. Passive tracking alarms and active phone-type connections are appropriate for different situations, but all these technologies provide comfort for family members at a distance.
Another area of concern is the safety and security of the older person living in their own home. Smart doorbells, like Ring, can allow authorized individuals to see who is at their door on their phone or another device. Currently integrated with Amazon Echo, these devices will soon pair with the new wave of smart home assistants that offer screens. The smart doorbells include two-way voice communication as well so that residents don’t have to get up and make the trek to the door. And those who may not be able to hear a traditional doorbell can respond to vibrating alerts on their smartphone.
Aging in place includes a risk that fragile elderly people can fall. Many protective home modifications are available to minimize this danger. While additions to the home such as non-skid walking surfaces and grab bars in the bathroom are important, there are new developments in footwear that provide additional stability. Smart footwear monitor movements and balance, sounding warnings before a fall occurs.
One set of shoes, still in the prototype phase, are specifically designed for people with loss of feeling (peripheral neuropathy). These patients may not feel the ground beneath their feet, which causes many falls. The smart Path Feel insoles vibrate when the wearer’s feet touch the ground. At the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, a French company E-Vone rolled out smart footwear that remotely notifies caregivers in case of a fall. These shoes don’t have to be paired with a phone because they contain a cellular chip and GPS locator. They are expected to go on the market in the U.S. this year.
The array of smart devices available can be daunting, and many families may not know where to start. Nashville startup HoneyCo Homes is working to bridge that information gap. They offer a suite of smart products for professional caregiving organizations as well as for family members of older people aging in place. These platforms integrate various pieces of technology — Amazon Echo, house lights, door locks, motion sensors and more — into complete systems. The systems are user-friendly and easy enough for even a novice to learn.
As more voice-controls appear on the market, connected to a growing array of smart home devices, the number of options for older people increases. Natural language controls and smart home devices lower the barriers to using technology. As a result, gracefully aging in place is becoming a viable option for many elders who would previously have been unable to safely stay in the homes they love. Families can more easily be in touch, and can have the assurance that the people they care for are healthy and well, or can get help immediately if a problem occurs. The quality of life for aging individuals (and for those who want the best for them) has improved dramatically in just a few short years. Smart homes, IoT, and wearable technology can erase the distance between people and bring peace of mind to the whole family.