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Modern technology helping the elderly stay at home

Jean Dickow of Oakland, Calif., wears a Lively safety watch, which has an alert button to push if she falls. Without being intrusive, it gives her daughter peace of mind about Dickow’s safety.
Published Aug. 9, 2015

Jean Dickow, 78, never wanted the latest whiz-bang technology. But her gadget-friendly daughter, who lives in Norway, was worried that Dickow would fall in her apartment and no one would know.

So Dickow was persuaded to put on an Apple Watch look-alike called the Lively safety watch, which has an alert button to push if she falls. Wearing a medical alert pendant that screamed old age was not an option, she said.

Besides displaying the time, the safety watch is also a step counter and even has a medication alert. Dickow especially likes the watch's chic look. "My club members ask me where I got the Apple Watch," Dickow, who lives in Oakland, Calif., said with a smile.

"This is a new wave of electronics and how your kids can watch over you," said Dickow, who does not own a smartphone. "It's a wonderful time for seniors."

Gadgets that can ease the burdens of aging are slowly beginning to appear in older adult's homes and communities. They are designed to respond to vital needs, including care giving, transportation and living more safely at home. Technology specialists say that these new devices can help older adults stay in their homes longer and more cheaply, and even help prevent serious illnesses.

"In three to five years, aging will be transformed," said Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. "We are in the early stages of seeing what technology can do." Nursing homes will become like the poorhouses of yore as technology makes living at home easier, she said.

Even the White House sees technology as one key to aging well. At the recent White House Conference on Aging, companies trotted out new, transformative technologies to help Americans age more gracefully.

The Silicon Valley startup Honor, which connects caregivers with older adults through an in-home screen, announced at the conference that it would offer $1 million in free home care in 10 cities yet to be specified. Seth Sternberg, co-founder and chief executive of Honor, became concerned about how older people could live better independently when his mother had difficulty driving. Now his mission is to help remake home care.

These technologies echo the hierarchy of human needs outlined by Abraham Maslow in 1943 in his paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" published in Psychological Review. They include connection, transportation and being part of a community, said Stephen Johnston, co-founder of the technology accelerator Aging 2.0.

He added that more start-ups were aimed at caregiving. CareLinx, for example, screens caregivers and even matches a family with an adviser, who helps navigate the process.

"We're seeing a new emergence of social technology," Johnston said. "There will be much more personalization."

The Internet of Things, a network of physical objects that are embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity that enable objects to "talk" to each other, is also closer than most people think, said Joseph Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the smart house of the future, old appliances will be replaced with smarter ones, he said. "The same house will just be more intelligent," he added.

Older adults are still on the wrong side of the digital divide, according to various studies. But Coughlin said bad products were the culprit, not a dislike for new technologies. "If you make the gadgets fun, people will use them," he said. "But if they ring of old man, it doesn't work."

Baby boomers, he added, will be the new disrupters who adopt the technologies, because they expect to live better.

For now, most smart technology relies on small sensors, invented in the 1950s. They can be placed anywhere in the home to track activity. On the refrigerator, sensors note how often the door is opened. On a home's front door, they log someone's comings and goings. Their purpose is to generate data that can be used to prevent illnesses or to reduce hospital trips.

Besides her safety watch, Dickow has Lively sensors throughout her home. A hub in her tea cart transmits the data, which appears on an online dashboard available to her daughter. But Dickow said she had forgotten that the devices were even there. "My daughter didn't even tell me," she said.

Anyone can add sensors to a home for only a few thousand dollars, the New York Times reported, citing unnamed caregivers.

Some communities for older adults are also tiptoeing into using sensors. Eskaton, which has about 30 campuses in Northern California, put sensors in some of its apartments. Information that is gathered is downloaded several times a day, said Sheri Peifer, chief strategy officer at Eskaton. Data is then analyzed by software and placed in a resident's snapshot report that is generated every day.

"The system gets to know your personal behavior," Peifer said. "We're alerted if there's no motion, for example."

Good Samaritan Society, which provides senior care and well-being services in 24 states (including Kissimmee and DeLand in Florida), also offers the Living Well at Home program. Part of the program uses sensors to track changes in a resident's daily behavior, including sleeplessness, which can be a sign of impending disease. Another part uses an in-home device to track vital health data.

Marianne Von Ruden, 77, has had the Good Samaritan device in her Rochester, Minn., home since last spring. Von Ruden, who has a few chronic diseases, uses the monitor to check her oxygen levels, weight and blood pressure every day. Nurses are alerted when levels are abnormal.

"The system has already saved my life," Von Ruden said. An alarmingly high blood pressure test recently alerted nurses to a life-threatening disease. They advised her to go to the hospital immediately. "Assisted living can't even monitor you as well medically," she said. "And I don't have to keep running to the doctor's office."

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