Technology to help seniors age in place has gone far beyond grab bars and fall-alert buttons worn around the neck. Today, there's a host of sophisticated products on the market, from medication dispensers that can report to a family member when their loved one forgets to take a pill to shoes embedded with GPS trackers to find cognitively impaired wanderers.
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The best choices for seniors who want to stay at home depend on their medical condition, budget and personal preferences, says Marnie Renda, an occupational therapist and certified aging-in-place specialist in Cincinnati. The goal should be to make the technology fit the lifestyle, not the other way around.
"You find out what their daily routines are and what their preferences are, and put technology in to support what they're already doing," Renda says.
Four Products to Consider
Personal emergency response systems, or PERS: The old models featuring a button attached to a pendant or connected to a telephone for summoning help aren't much help if the user is too forgetful or incapacitated to press the button.
"What companies have seen over time with the basic push-button phone or pendant is that people often feel uncomfortable calling," says Susan Garland, editor of Kiplinger's Retirement Report, which ran an article about assistive technologies in its July 2012 issue.
New PERS models not only trigger an automatic response, they also can detect the difference between a fall and someone stooping down to pick something up, Garland says. As Renda describes them, these new devices are worn as chest straps under clothing, similar to a heart monitor.
Monthly subscriptions for basic PERS devices start at around $30, according to Julie Menack, a care manager and certified aging-in-place specialist in Oakland, Calif., who also sells assistive technology. The Kiplinger article features a model with an automatic alert that costs $49 a month.
Medication dispensers: Taking prescribed medicine in a timely manner goes a long way toward helping seniors maintain their independence. "Some research shows that 20 (percent) to 30% of people who end up in nursing homes do so because they couldn't manage their medication," Renda says.
One of the latest medication management tools is a countertop dispenser that's about the size of a blender, Garland says. A caregiver loads in several days' worth of medicine and provides the manufacturer of the dispenser with the patient's medication schedule, and the machine is coded to deliver the right amount at the right time. Monthly rental and monitoring fees run from $59 to $75, according to Garland.
Some models can be locked to prevent someone with dementia or simple forgetfulness from taking the wrong medicine, and some notify a caregiver by phone, email or text if a dosage is missed, Renda says.
Motion sensors: Motion-detection monitoring systems are especially handy for remote caregivers, Garland says. These systems rely on floor mats and bed mats wired to pick up changes in the user's normal activity.
"You use the person's habits to set up a baseline of what his or her style of living is, so the computers on the sensor know when that refrigerator door should open for breakfast or lunch," Garland says.
These types of monitors generally run from about $200 to several thousand dollars to purchase, plus a monthly fee of $70 to upward of $200, Menack says.
Enhanced telephones: Telephones with very large buttons and room to display photographs of contacts on speed dial can be lifesavers for people with visual and cognitive impairment, Menack says. Special phones with enhanced sound help those with hearing loss. Menack notes that some cellphones on the market enable callers to access an operator instead of dialing the numbers themselves.
Prices for picture phones start at about $80, while the cost of an amplified land line can range from $30 to $300, according to Menack. Cellphones with enhanced sound and special services are in the $50 to $300 range. She notes that some state agencies may offer free enhanced phones to those with a doctor's prescription.
The Learning Curve
Proper installation and training are essential to making assistive technology easy to use, Menack says.
"Every product has a learning curve," she says. "If the person the product is meant for isn't that tech-savvy, there has to be someone who is going to see it through and make sure that it's working."
Adds Renda: "The key to getting people to accept technology is making sure you have the right product. You have to make sure their vision is appropriate so that they can actually see the product and can use it. If the technology demands too much from them, they're not going to be able to use it."
Help With Financing
No single private insurance plan or public program pays for all types of assistive technology. Medicare Part B pays for up to 80% of the cost of what it calls "durable medical equipment" -- or devices needed for recovery from an injury or illness -- but not for products meant for long-term use. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers more extensive financial assistance for veterans needing assistive technology.
Most states provide Medicaid Waiver reimbursement for personal emergency response systems, while a smaller number cover medication management and health monitoring systems, according to a 2011 study by the LeadingAge Center for Aging Services Technologies.