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AN ELECTRONIC SAFETY NET FOR ELDERS

by George McKechnie

A Demographic Bubble

Seniors today are living longer than ever before.  And because they are also living healthier and more active lives, most elders aspire to maintain themselves in their home surroundings for as long as possible.  At home they are comfortable, they know where things are located, and they are surrounded by familiar visual cues that trigger fond memories of earlier times.  The psychological benefits of supporting and maintaining themselves in an environment to which they are adapted physically and secure emotionally are hard to over-state.

The financial benefits can also be substantial—both for the family and for society at large. Our aging population already places a significant fiscal burden on government programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and on family financial resources as well.  And these stresses will only increase as the demographic bulge of retiring Baby Boomers hits these programs.  Given the accelerating cost of assisted senior care, the use of appropriate, carefully installed and programmed smart home automation features to mitigate physical risks and monitor medically relevant behaviors can dramatically reduce the pressures on these finite economic resources, and result in happier, healthier seniors, and less worried friends and family.

Simple Automation Needs

Appropriate and intelligently deployed smart home technologies can do much to help elders extend the period in which they can live safely and comfortably at home.  These electronic devices can also reduce the medical risks associated with aging (such as falling and dehydration), and delay or even prevent the transition of seniors from home-living into a care facility.

Many of the smart home features that can address the needs of seniors who choose to age-in-place are simple and inexpensive.  This means that the payback time needed to recapture the initial costs of installing these safety nets is short—perhaps as little as a month or two—when compared to the high monthly fees charged for assisted living, not to mention the cost, inconvenience and psychological stresses associated with closing down a home or apartment.

Specialty Devices

Specialized automation technologies are increasingly available to monitor specific medical and safety conditions, and bring help when needed—for elders, and for infirm younger individuals with special needs as well, who live alone or are unattended for periods of time.  By triggering an appropriate alert—and summoning appropriate help—these devices can significantly reduce the risk of an unattended minor injury or other medical condition escalating into a situation that dictates a transfer from home living into assisted care.

8_Electronic_risk_management_for_seniors_r2-02Managing Risks

The most common medical risks for elders who are living-at-home alone include: insufficient fluid intake, poor eating and sleeping habits, and forgetting to take medications on schedule.  Specialized automation technologies can address these problems.  They include: bed pads which monitor temperature, respiration, and quality of sleep; drug dispensers which track and help maintain daily medication regimens; event counters (in the refrigerator, for example), which provide a useful indicator of daily food and fluid intake; and other passive devices—like motion detectors, timers, and counters—which alert caregivers or family members to behavioral changes that signal the possible increased risk of impending medical or safety issues or even emergencies.

Other general purpose devices can also help manage risks, and alert appropriate responders when something does go wrong.  Here are some typical uses:

  • Motion detectors that are configured to turn on pathway lighting to illuminate the trip from the bed to bathroom; or indicate how often the refrigerator door is opened—or the toilet flushed.
  • A system that turns on overhead lights and a surveillance camera if the person gets out of bed during the night, but doesn’t get back within, say, 15 minutes.
  • Door locks that send alerts when they remain unlocked for more than 10 minutes—or are unlocked after 6:00 pm.
  • Smart appliances that report unusual patterns of use, or a range left on more than 30 minutes for breakfast or lunch, or an hour at dinnertime.
  • Surveillance cameras at the front and back doors, stairways, and other locations where slips and falls are more likely to occur.

Active vs Passive Devices

What about those call pendants and special cell phones, which allow elders living alone to summon help when needed?   Senior care experts know from experience that these active (self-initiated) devices are generally ineffective in bringing help.  Why?  Because an elderly person in distress may not have the device at hand when an accident occurs (it’s usually on the nightstand or bathroom sink), or is too embarrassed to use it, too confused to act, or even unconscious.

Passive devices which do not require action on the part of the senior to alert help—like bed sensors, motion detectors, and surveillance cameras—are much more likely to be effective, especially when used in combination.  And they can be calibrated and programmed to elicit a level of support appropriate to the specific needs of the senior.  Here are some examples of risks, with appropriate automated solutions:

  • Problem: Stove or oven is left on for more than, say, one hour. Action: Alert friendly neighbor, senior services organization, and/or relative with a message to contact the senior immediately, as there may be a fire hazard, health concern, or other safety risk.
  • Problem: Senior has gotten out of bed between the hours of 10:00 pm and 7:00 pm, and has remained out of the bed for more than 20 minutes. Action: Notify family to initiate phone call to senior to assess situation.  If no response, alert concerned neighbor and/or local police to request welfare check.
  • Problem: Front or back door lock is unlocked any time between 8 pm and 8 am, or is unlocked at other times and not re-locked within 5 minutes. Action: Notify local security service, or police, to immediately check the home.  

When standard smart home technologies and home medical monitoring devices are thoughtfully selected and carefully employed to help appropriate elders maintain their normal lifestyle routines in their own home, everyone benefits—the elder family member, the family, and society in general.  Accomplishing this safely and effectively may require the careful coordination of the client’s medical team, home health services, and a local smart home specialist experienced in helping elders to age-in-place, safely and gracefully.  See Tailor the Tech to your Lifestyle