Used to be, the phone or a good neighbor were the best bets for keeping tabs on someone you love who's elderly and living alone — especially if you lived too far to buzz over every day. • But more and more, a host of technological devices and Internet-based solutions is crowding the elder-care landscape, making it more convenient, and far less worrisome, to know all is well with an aging relative or friend.
We talked to gerontology nurses and gerontologists to get the lowdown on what's smart, what's dignified, and what's best avoided.
Far more important than all the high-tech gadgets in the world is the simple act of talking about it to make sure any high-tech monitoring is seen not as an invasion of privacy but rather a means of allowing a person to more safely live alone.
"Sometimes in our eagerness for safety, that whole aspect of a person's autonomy — and dignity — is being trampled," says nursing professor Margaret Bull, who specializes in elder-care issues at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
"As much as possible, match what's in that person's comfort zone," advises Dena Schulman-Green, a gerontologist at Yale University's College of Nursing, who often opts for low-tech elder-care solutions but certainly not always.
"Some older adults are very into technology, and using such devices makes them feel part of the modern world, and less of a burden to their kids."
Here's a list of techno-innovations, approved by nurses who spend their lives looking out for the elderly.
Skype (skype.com): This free, Internet-based two-way teleconference service tops the list for ways to keep in touch daily. For no charge, you can add a video component so you can see the person, and keep watch for changes in appearance or manner.
"That face-to-face contact is really important, especially if you're concerned about social isolation," says Lesley Boaz, a geriatric nurse practitioner and professor at Marquette's College of Nursing.
Cell phone with GPS device: Needn't be anything fancier than a flip phone that's tucked in the pocket of an elderly person, with the GPS connected to the caregiver's smart phone. That way you can track from afar, and know whether your loved one has made it to, say, the dentist's office, or somehow boarded the wrong bus.
Lotsa Helping Hands (lotsa helpinghands.com): This is a great website for anyone who's trying to coordinate a battalion of family and friends who will all be pitching in with various assignments. It's a free site, and caregivers set up a members-only community (you can invite whomever you choose). When there's a job that needs to be done, say, a ride to the doctor, or a trip to the grocery store, it's posted on the calendar and an e-mail alert goes out to all the community members.
Philips Lifeline (lifelinesys.com): One of the tried-and-true home-monitoring systems; provides basic but essential features for about $38 a month. If there's an emergency, users push the button on a necklace pendant or wristwatch, alerting the Lifeline call center. (The AutoAlert option automatically places a call if it detects a fall.) An operator talks to the client through a speakerphone device to find out what's happening. If there's no answer, the call center contacts caregivers and emergency medical services.
Don't try these, please: Tracking devices, worn around the wrist, or — worse — microchips, "it's like a dog," says Boaz, who wholly disapproves. Ditto on videocameras in the bedroom or bathroom. "Complete invasion of privacy."
In the end, she says, "Human contact is irreplaceable. I am not saying you need to move 500 miles to be close to Mom or Dad. There are other humans out there. What it takes is carefully thinking all this through."