Smart home technology: Providing independence to the elderly while strengthening family ties

Tarun Nimmagadda, founder & co-CEO, Mutual Mobile

As Baby Boomers age, the need for adult care and assisted living continues to grow. As of February 2015, 8.4 million people in the U.S. receive support annually from five main long-term care service options: home health agencies, nursing homes, hospices, residential care communities, and adult day service centers. Outside these facilities, 43.5 million family and informal caregivers currently provide care for someone aged 50+.

The demand for these resources will grow exponentially in the coming years due to increased life expectancy and an aging population. By 2050, the number of people aged 85 and older is expected to increase to 19.4 million, with individuals using paid long-term care services projected to reach 27 million people.

Even among the most severely disabled older persons living in our country, about two-thirds rely solely on family members for assisted care, often resulting in great emotional stress for family caregivers.

We need a more viable and scalable solution to meet this demand. Enter a new wave of smart home technology known as assistive domotics.

Assistive domotics is an application of home automation that focuses on enabling elderly or disabled persons to live at their home instead of a healthcare facility. These products use Bluetooth sensors to track movements in the home, or lack thereof, of elderly parents. Sensors can be placed on any item, including pillboxes, doors, and keychains. GPS technology documents precise location information of the person, logs activity, and reports it to a family member living somewhere else.

The numerous benefits of smart homes for the elderly

Empowering the elderly to live independently instead of in an adult care facility not only provides financial savings, it also has great potential to improve quality of life, reduce the strain on aged care facilities, and provide relief for family caregivers.

As Diane Cook, lead researcher at Washington State University’s “Smart Home Project” describes, “Individuals don’t want to leave their home even if they live in a rural area and don’t have easy access to health care or family members. They still will not leave their family home. Studies show that when they do – particularly against their will – that move is often followed by cognitive and physical decline and death.”

Here are several ways assistive domotics help with independent living for the elderly:

  • Emergency Response: Already commonplace, this technology provides a panic button that immediately notifies loved ones or authorities of an emergency, including a fall.
  • Eyesight and Hearing: Enhanced alarms on doors, doorbells, smoke detectors, and appliances are more effective at alerting someone with visual or hearing impairments about home-related incidents.
  • Memory: As mental sharpness fades with age, forgetfulness can lead to serious safety issues. Smart home capabilities provide reminders to turn off a coffee pot, automatically lock doors, and even provide reminders to take daily medication.
  • Video Monitoring: For safety and security, the inside and outside of the home can be monitored, including remote viewing for caregivers living outside of the home.
  • Medication Assistance: Systems can dispense specific medications and dosages at the exact time they should be taken, even providing locks on other medications that should not be taken at that time. This ability is particularly beneficial for Alzheimer’s patients.

Beyond the immediate benefits to the elderly, this type of technology provides additional comfort to those in the “sandwich generation,” a term coined for those simultaneously supporting aging parents and their children.

Assistive domotics products begin to penetrate the market

With all of these benefits in mind, brands are beginning to provide smart home products to fulfill the potential of assistive domotics.

Some of these products include:

  • Lively: This “smartwatch-esque” product provides immediate communications to emergency services and contacts with the touch of a button. Beyond that, Lively also provides medication reminders, step counting, and daily activity sharing.
  • Evermind: Evermind’s sensor technology provides caregivers and those living independently the ability to monitor the usage of home appliances and medical equipment. For example, the sensors can track if powered medical equipment like respiratory devices or wound care pumps are being used. It also monitors when common household appliances are switched on and off.
  • Daily Routine: Created by SmartThings, the Daily Routine app helps caregivers stay connected to elderly or disabled loved ones by sending immediate alerts if they deviate from important daily routines. This includes opening their medicine cabinet at a designated time or if a caregiver hasn’t arrived for their regularly scheduled appointment.
  • Slip & Fall: Also built by SmartThings, the Slip & Fall app monitors motion and sends alerts to caregivers if an aging relative slips and falls. The app uses motion sensors, which can be placed throughout the home, to detect movement and send a notification if there is no movement for a predetermined period of time. With over 2.5 million older people treated in emergency departments for injuries caused by falls, this technology can help save a life.

While this technology is useful to both older adults and their loved ones, one must ask: “What about the Big Brother effect?” Older consumers are known to be slow to adopt emerging technologies, especially ones that could invade their privacy.

Despite these notions, a study from the Journal of Aging Science shows that older adults indeed readily accept smart-home technologies, especially if they benefit in physical activity, independence, function, and most importantly, if privacy concerns are addressed.

Or, as the study poignantly assessed, “While the outcomes and cost effectiveness of these forms of technology remain to be assessed, they appear to show some potential for helping older adults to live longer, safely, and independently in their own homes.”

The author of this blog is Tarun Nimmagadda, founder & co-chief executive officer, Mutual Mobile.

Comment on this article below or via Twitter: @M2MNow OR @jcm2m

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