Many of us remember the famous ad for the Life Call alert systems from the 1980's — "I've fallen...and I can't get up!" That line has been used in jokes and parodies ever since, but the concept is no joke to many seniors. Falls are the leading source of injuries in older Americans, and they can lead to a loss of independence, or worse.
However, seniors face other risks that can threaten independence. Everything from mixing up or forgetting important medications to leaving a stove burner on unattended can have catastrophic consequences.
An AARP study shows that 87% of seniors prefer to age in their homes and communities instead of in assisted living facilities or nursing homes, but as seniors become frailer and more forgetful, it is increasingly dangerous to leave them at home by themselves. Many of the 87% will not be able to fulfill their wishes.
Fortunately, advances in sensors and monitoring technology have made it easier for seniors to remain independent. These new systems, sold by companies such as Lively, BeClose, and SimplyHome, use networks of advanced sensors placed throughout the home to monitor typical patterns and regular scheduled events. Unusual activity (or lack of activity) can send an alert to caregivers, family, or both to check up on the senior's condition. Wearable location sensors can be added if necessary.
Examples include pillbox sensors to verify that the right medicine has been taken on schedule, sensors noting when appliances such as stove burners are left on with no movement detected in the area, or alerting that a door has been left open. The alerts can be sent to the senior via a wearable device or to caregivers for a quick follow-up.
SmartThings offers a highly customizable system that connects all these sensors into a wireless hub, and includes the capability to add other third-party control loops. Door locks, cameras, thermostats and other devices can be incorporated along with the senior monitoring sensors in one relatively simple control system. You can mix and match the components that make the most sense for your senior's living conditions.
Research is underway to make these sensor systems predictive in nature rather than reactive. Sensors in mattresses, kitchens, and toilets can check for unusual sleeping, eating, and bathroom habits respectively. By comparing current and past data patterns, caregivers can look for possible signs of oncoming trouble — for example, are more frequent trips to the bathroom a sign of a treatable infection?
Home monitoring sensor technologies are coming down in price to the point where some are available at big box retailers. They are still not cheap — although they pale in comparison to the average nursing home costs. The University of Missouri estimated through their Aging in Place and Eldercare research efforts that aging-in-place systems with coordinated care by registered nurses (RNs) could save almost $9 billion annually with implementation in only 10% of the elderly population.
The technology is not without its concerns. Privacy advocates raise concerns about the information being gathered and tracked, and some seniors may consider the sensors as privacy violations. It is important to present the tracking systems in as positive of a light as possible, and not as a heavy-handed alternative to the nursing home.
Most importantly, seniors need the assistance and care of family and friends to be contacts and help with the monitoring process. If you have a parent or other loved one that needs help to stay independent, consider these new technologies as an alternative. Remember, someday you may be the senior that needs help.