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The best technology to prevent falls, monitor safety, and help older adults age in place longer

February 3, 2023, 11:00 AM UTC
Demand for products that help older people remain safely at home longer and provide family caregivers additional peace of mind is skyrocketing.

If you’re 65, you may have at least another 20 years of living to look forward to. And if you’re like the vast majority of older people, you want to remain in your own home for as long as possible. 

Ongoing health conditions mean many of us will need help as we age, and with the cost of assisted living out of reach for many families, “aging-in-place represents a better experience, at a relatively affordable total cost, than the one offered by the traditional route,” a report from The Boston Consulting Group concluded. It’s one reason why demand for products that help older people remain safely at home longer and provide family caregivers additional peace of mind is skyrocketing.

But with all the tech out there, and more under development, where to even begin?

It can definitely be an overwhelming prospect, according to Steve Ewell, executive director of the Consumer Technology Association Foundation. He recommends that the older adult and family members discuss key concerns together, before considering any products. Is medication compliance spotty? Is home security a concern? Are there balance issues that may lead to falls?

“It’s important to talk with your loved one, who many be resistant to technology solutions, and perhaps start small, with something like a video doorbell or basic electronic pill reminder,” Ewell says.

Consider safety, security, and privacy along with cost, says Ewell. “The most important piece is it’s really understanding the value that you’re getting out of installing this piece of technology, because if someone’s not seeing any value from it, then chances are they’re not going to keep using it.”

Technologies can be quickly abandoned or rejected by users due to a lack of compatibility or little personal involvement in selecting devices, a recent focus group with seniors found. While participants generally had positive attitudes towards technology installation and use in their homes, they were also concerned about privacy, functionality, and aesthetics. Additionally, some devices come with monthly fees, and researchers at Virginia Tech found that “perceived affordability significantly influenced older adults’ intentions to use them in their homes.”

“Many people assume seniors aren’t interested in technology. But seniors have shown they can adjust to an ever-evolving technology landscape as well as other age groups,” says Seth Sternberg, co-founder and CEO of Honor, a national home care company. “Think about what stage a person is at, and what they truly need.”

Among the most common concerns of older adults are falls, medication adherence, and home safety and security.

Balance and falls

More than one in four adults (28%) 65 and older report falling each year, costing the US health system about $50 billion annually. Falls can lead to serious injury, loss of independence, or even premature death.

You can start with a low tech option like motion activated lighting that turns on when you walk past.  More advanced motion sensors can monitor room activity for potential falls, automatically contact emergency help, and alert designated family members or friends. If someone is more comfortable wearing a device, there’s the classic pendant with push button as well as upscale versions masquerading as jewelry. Many smartwatches offer fall risk assessment and detection, monitor vital signs and track specific health trends. Most also have an SOS feature.

Other home sensors can learn a person’s usual daily pattern, and monitor activity—like whether a kitchen cabinet or fridge is opened or how often someone uses the bathroom. Caregivers can tap in to data via an app or web portal. While it may sound intrusive, changes in activity can alert a caregiver that something may be amiss. Numerous companies now specialize in these sensor suites, using artificial intelligence to detect changes in usual patterns.

“It’s also good to see that many of these companies are getting better about incorporating additional privacy and user control into these devices,” says Ewell.

Or, you might want to consider a smart scale, which measures balance and predicts fall risk.The scale can be used on its own or paired with a companion mobile app that offers balance- enhancing exercises.

Medication reminders and pill dispensers

This is one of the more popular ways to introduce tech into the home, according to Ewell. Reminders can be as basic as a smartphone app, or pillboxes with alarms that hold about a month’s worth of medication, to higher tech smart devices that provide caregiver alerts and 24/7 support, for a monthly fee.

Safety and security

“Doorbell cameras are the number one tech gadget now for older people,” says Ewell. A video doorbell such as those from Ring, ADT, or SimpliSafe may offer older adults and their families additional peace of mind.

These devices can be controlled by a smartphone app, and are smart-speaker compatible, so they can be operated with voice commands. Smart fire, water, and CO2 detectors can not only alert the homeowner to danger, but also contact a family member or first responders in an emergency. Smart door locks allow homeowners or caregivers to program access and monitor activity.

Automation and smart homes

About one-quarter of US adults have a smart speaker, like Alexa, Google, or Apple Home; about 19% of owners are 50 and older. Smart speakers do more than play music—they can share health information with a family member or physician. A system like Alexa Together lets a caregiver keep tabs on a loved one’s routine and health status through a connected smartphone app, for a monthly fee (about $20 as of this writing).

Further integrating a smart speaker home hub can operate lights, thermostats, and appliances via voice commands, which could be a boon for elders with vision issues. Adding smart plugs for around $25 each, connects traditional lamps and small appliances to the hub. Be sure plugs are compatible with whatever smart speaker you own; interoperability isn’t quite there yet. 

Ewell suggested visiting retail locations to try out some of these technologies before buying any device, and determine what may be right for you. You can also check with community groups or local libraries, which may have demonstration ‘smart homes” for hands-on learning.

“Approach these devices with an open mind,’ Ewell says. “Your options and customization are almost endless.”

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