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New Tech Devices Will Help Boomers Age in Place

These monitoring products are designed for a gadget-savvy generation

My mother-in-law was in her 90s and living alone when she reluctantly agreed to wear a pendant that allowed her to call for help if she fell. It gave us a sense of security. But her, not so much.

She didn’t like the device. She would press it inadvertently and suddenly the rescue squad would be pounding on her door. Or she would “forget” to wear it. It wasn’t until she moved into our basement apartment, though, that we realized the pendant was just gathering dust on her bureau — even though she was paying nearly $40 a month for the service.

She’s hardly the only one who agrees to subscribe to such systems mostly to placate their adult children. AARP Senior Vice President Jody Holtzman says that while plenty of the 2 million older people who use a personal emergency response system (PERS), such as Lifeline, feel a sense of security, many others are like my mother-in-law. “Half of them throw it in a drawer and the reason is, even the oldest and the frailest don’t want to be wearing something around their neck that is like a neon sign that says, ‘I’m old and frail,’” says Holtzman. “People want their dignity, regardless of age.”

(MORE: Transforming Life as We Age)

He points out other reasons why people don’t use their PERS systems in the way they were intended. Some, including those with dementia, are unable to press the button if they fall. Others press the alarm not to call for help but simply because they’re lonely and want to connect with the human voice at the call center.

Beyond Pendants

PERS users are typically 75 and older. Many don’t have a home computer and are uncomfortable with new technologies. But the landscape is rapidly changing. While only 37 percent of those 80 and older use the Internet at home, nearly three-quarters of the first wave of boomers do, according to a 2014 Pew Research study. The study found that overall, 59 percent of those 65 and older use the Internet at home, compared to 86 percent of all adults.

As a more tech-savvy generation of elders comes along, new monitoring tools are becoming available. To capture the growing aging-with-independence market, tech firms and startups are racing to come up with products that will appeal to more people and at an earlier age.

For example, a wristwatch called Lively not only tells time, it can count footsteps for fitness; passively sense movements such as getting out of bed; give medication reminders and trigger emergency response calls. Lively will soon have the capability to be integrated with your smartphone. And it’s much sportier looking than the traditional PERS.

The idea behind such products, says Holtzman, is that people in their 50s might buy the watch as an exercise tracker, and later on, use it also as a PERS.

(MORE: How to Live the Way You Want as You Age)

Linking Social Support And Technology

Retired computer software engineer Clair Garman, 76, of Takoma Park, Md., was concerned about his friend, “Eric,” who lives alone (his friend asked that his real name not to be used). If Eric fell, how long might he lie there before anyone noticed?

Eric had no interest in a PERS. “A pendant is premature,” he says, “which is another way of saying I don’t want to admit that I’m that old.”

Garman came up with a simple Web-based method that allows him to look out for his friend in a way that Eric doesn’t mind. Every morning at 5:30, an email is automatically sent from Garman’s computer to his friend’s email account, with the subject line, “Reminder for Eric.” As soon as Eric logs on to his computer in the morning, he sees the message and hits a link that says, “Please click here to let Clair know you’re OK.” On his end, Garman also gets a reminder to check on his friend if he hasn’t heard from him by 11:00 or so.

They’ve used the system more than a year and it’s working well. Occasionally, Eric hasn’t logged on to his computer, and Garman calls to make sure he’s OK.

“Honestly, at first I felt it was unnecessary because I’m still active and still in reasonably good health,” says Eric. “But of course you get to a certain age, things could happen. It certainly has not been a burden, and it is a good thing to know that it’s there. I feel a certain sense of security.”

(MORE: How Machines Could Ease the Caregiver Shortage)

Control Is Key

Simple technology like the reminder developed by Garman is changing how older people view home monitoring. Rather than a paternalistic monitoring of Grandma, Grandma can now monitor herself or cooperate with her pals to look out for each other.

Gerontechnologist Claude A. Goodman of Portland, Ore., who founded a public benefit corporation called CareWheels, is developing ways for people to use technology to “cross-monitor” a friend or neighbor. Among other technologies, he’s looked at passive home sensor systems that monitor activities such as getting out of bed or opening the refrigerator.

In his beta testing with older people who share their monitoring data with a peer, he’s found that “by sharing responsibility for the well-being of others, [older consumers] became motivated to take better care of themselves.” They also are less isolated and depressed, he found, and felt empowered by the monitoring, rather than resentful of it.

“There may be more comfort in sharing the monitoring with a friendly peer than with an adult child,” he says.

Goodman’s aim is to take systems such as Lively and “begin to deploy them in intentional communities so they can create interdependent, social health networks,” he says. “Rather than medicalizing aging, I’m looking at social benefits.” Any close-knit neighborhood, such as a Village, might benefit from a buddy-system type of shared monitoring, Goodman says.

“It’s not just about the gadget,” Holtzman agrees. “It’s about human interaction. That’s when the gadget works best.”

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