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What's Next in Caregiving Technology

Experts preview new health, home and monitoring tools designed to ease caregivers' burdens

By Sherri Snelling | December 1, 2012
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Sherri Snelling, executive director at Keck Medicine of USC and author of A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self-care” while caring for a loved one.

Caregiving can be stressful, overwhelming work. But new technology is increasingly lightening the load for the nation's 65 million caregivers, who are found in 3 out of 10 American households. During the holiday season and throughout the coming year, a range of new gadgets and services designed especially for them is coming to market.
 
Remote Monitoring Comes of Age
 
Today's 40- and 50-something caregivers, who may require the same kind of assistance in the future, will transform the role "from a silent majority to a vocal, mobilized effort," says Eric Dishman, general manager of the Intel Health, Strategy and Solutions Group and a global advocate for technology that helps us live independently in our homes longer than ever before.

(MORE: For Caregivers, New Tracking Technology Offers Peace of Mind)

Dishman knows the landscape well — at 16, he began helping to care for his grandmother, who had Alzheimer's disease. More than 20 years ago, he led the Intel team that developed the first home monitoring devices. "Just as we had the environmental and global warming movement with green technology," he says, "we now have a global aging movement where gray technology will help caregivers."

The marketplace already has GPS-enabled slippers, shoes, belt clips and watches, as well as sensors embedded in carpets and doorways that allow caregivers to take a crucial break — even just to run to the grocery store or take a nap — without fear their loved ones will fall or wander off without warning.

But there's more to come: Intel and General Electric have jointly launched Care Innovations, which offers QuietCare, a wireless remote monitoring system that can detect nighttime movements or changes in a person's daily movements or routines. The goal is to enable both rapid response and long-term observation. If someone falls, the system can send instant alerts to mobile devices or computers, but its ongoing observation can detect subtle changes, like a decline in gait, which can be addressed to prevent falls before they occur.

To date, QuietCare is available only in assisted living and independent living facilities. But direct-to-consumer solutions include mobile personal emergency response systems (MPERS), like the Comfort Zone device offered by the Alzheimer's Association for $99, plus a monthly service fee.
 
Games for Fitness and Much More
 
Technology originally devised for gaming is also driving a revolution in health care. Study after study has found that caregivers tend to let their own health suffer when they take on their new role. But hardware like Kinect, the hands-free gesture recognition controller for Microsoft's Xbox, can help caregivers get the cardio workouts they need without going to the gym. The devices also encourage physical activity for older patients.

The Kinect controller can facilitate range-of-movement exercises as well as low-impact cardio workouts. Best of all, they give caregivers quality time at play with their loved ones, a vital distraction from daily responsibilities.

And the device's potential is just being tapped: The Esoma Exercise System, for example, uses Kinect to assist patients rehabilitating from cardiac surgery. They play games while wearing sensors that monitor heart rates and blood oxygenation then relay the data to physicians. (Read more about how the XBox Kinect could revolutionize caregiving.)
 
The Healthiest Phones and Apps
 
Smartphone companies are also taking a greater interest in seniors and caregivers. Laurie Orlov, who writes the Aging in Place Technology Watch blog, likes the Jitterbug Touch phone from Great Call, whose senior-friendly phones feature both a touchscreen and a larger-than-standard slide-out keyboard, along with a three-megapixel camera and, for a limited time, a $149 price tag. Great Call also offers the 5Star Urgent Response service and the free LiveNurse app, which can instantly connect any smartphone user with a registered nurse for live assistance, 24/7.
 
Orlov's top picks for related apps include Caregiver's Touch, Tell My Geo, Personal Caregiver and the American Heart Association's Pocket First Aid and CPR. I would add to her list VitaCare (although it's costly at $29.99), Sunlight Health and condition-specific apps, like the Parkinson's Tool Kit and Diabetes Pal. Of course, caregivers must always remember to look out for their own health and well-being, and apps are making it easier: Here's a guide to 10 of Next Avenue's favorites.
 
Underutilized Benefits of eReaders

Tablets and eReaders are ideal gifts for both caregivers and those aging in place. Many of us already know the basic features of the iPad, Samsung Galaxy, Google Nexus, Kindle Fire or Nook, which can range in price from $100 to $700. But the devices' touchscreen interfaces, adjustable font size and audio capability also make them well-suited for seniors who have difficulty using a mouse because of arthritis or Parkinson's disease, or who have trouble reading because of macular degeneration or similar conditions.

The tablets are cost-effective for frequent readers, who can now check out electronic books from most U.S. libraries, a so-far underpublicized benefit — a recent Pew Center survey found that only 12 percent of eReader owners had borrowed an electronic book from a library in the past year.

Trends for Silvers
 
Attendees at the huge annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January will see a trend toward more all-in-one integrated devices that can facilitate healthier living for both caregivers and their loved ones. "Just as Jitterbug took an existing product — the cell phone — and made it aging-friendly," says Jill Gilbert, who co-produces the Silvers Summit conference at the Consumer Electronics Show, "other companies are doing the same with a variety of traditional gadgets."

(MORE: 10 Steps to Get Started as a Caregiver)

Examples include the Biscotti Smart TV Cam, which turns your screen into a high-def video phone; the Ceiva digital photo frame, which can deliver medication reminders or recipes for special dietary needs, along with photos of the kids and grandkids; and the Independa system, now being integrated into LG televisions through a pilot program, which enables video chat with health care providers or family caregivers. Through the TV's remote control, Independa can also manage a calendar and medication reminders and check email and Facebook.

The next big challenges: lower cost and wider adoption. "Technology has always been a chicken and egg dilemma," Intel's Dishman says. "If enough people are aware of tech tools and services and start buying them, individual device costs come down. For caregiving technology, we're not completely there yet. But it will happen."